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J Physiol Paris. 2011 Jan-Jun;105(1-3):25-35. doi: 10.1016/j.jphysparis.2011.08.002. Epub 2011 Sep 3.

Encoding/decoding of first and second order tactile afferents in a neurorobotic application.

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CNRS, University Pierre & Marie Curie, Laboratory of Neurobiology of Adaptive Processes, UMR 7102, 9 quai St. Bernard, 75005 Paris, France.


We present a neurorobotic framework to investigate tactile information processing at the early stages of the somatosensory pathway. We focus on spatiotemporal coding of first and second order responses to Braille stimulation, which offers a suitable protocol to investigate the neural bases of fine touch discrimination. First, we model Slow Adaptive type I fingertip mechanoreceptor responses to Braille characters sensed both statically and dynamically. We employ a network of spiking neurones to transduce analogue skin deformations into primary spike trains. Then, we model second order neurones in the cuneate nucleus (CN) of the brainstem to study how mechanoreceptor responses are possibly processed prior to their transmission to downstream central areas. In the model, the connectivity layout of mechanoreceptor-to-cuneate projections produces a sparse CN code. To characterise the reliability of neurotransmission we employ an information theoretical measure accounting for the metrical properties of spiking signals. Our results show that perfect discrimination of primary and secondary responses to a set of 26 Braille characters is achieved within 100 and 500 ms of stimulus onset, in static and dynamic conditions, respectively. Furthermore, clusters of responses to different stimuli are better separable after the CN processing. This finding holds for both statically and dynamically delivered stimuli. In the presented system, when sliding the artificial fingertip over a Braille line, a speed of 40-50mm/s is optimal in terms of rapid and reliable character discrimination. This result is coherent with psychophysical observations reporting average reading speeds of 30-40±5 mm/s adopted by expert Braille readers.

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