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J Neurophysiol. 2013 Mar;109(5):1403-15. doi: 10.1152/jn.00717.2012. Epub 2012 Dec 5.

Physical determinants of the shape of the psychophysical curve relating tactile roughness to raised-dot spacing: implications for neuronal coding of roughness.

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1Groupe de recherche sur le système nerveux central (GRSNC), Département de physiologie, Faculté de médecine, Universitéde Montréal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.


There are conflicting reports as to whether the shape of the psychometric relation between perceived roughness and tactile element spacing [spatial period (SP)] follows an inverted U-shape or a monotonic linear increase. This is a critical issue because the former result has been used to assess neuronal codes for roughness. We tested the hypothesis that the relation's shape is critically dependent on tactile element height (raised dots). Subjects rated the roughness of low (0.36 mm)- and high (1.8 mm)-raised-dot surfaces displaced under their fingertip. Inverted U-shaped curves were obtained as the SP of low-dot surfaces was increased (1.3-6.2 mm, tetragonal arrays); a monotonic increase was observed for high-dot surfaces. We hypothesized that roughness is not a single sensory continuum across the tested SPs of low-dot surfaces, predicting that roughness discrimination would show deviations from the invariant relation between threshold (ΔS) and the value of the standard (S) surface (Weber fraction, ΔS/S) expected for a single continuum. The results showed that Weber fractions were increased for SPs on the descending limb of the inverted U-shaped curve. There was also an increase in the Weber fraction for high-dot surfaces but only at the peak (3 mm), corresponding to the SP at which the slope of the psychometric function showed a modest decline. Together the results indicate that tactile roughness is not a continuum across low-dot SPs of 1.3-6.2 mm. These findings suggest that correlating the inverted U-shaped function with neuronal codes is of questionable validity. A simple intensive code may well contribute to tactile roughness.

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