Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 216, Issue 2, pp 287–297 | Cite as

Touch perception throughout working life: effects of age and expertise

  • Eva-Maria Reuter
  • Claudia Voelcker-Rehage
  • Solveig Vieluf
  • Ben GoddeEmail author
Research Article


Fine motor skills including precise tactile and haptic perception are essential to the manipulation of objects. With increasing age, one’s perception decreases; however, little is known about the state of touch perception in middle-aged adults. This study investigated the extent to which the decline in touch perception affects adults throughout their working life. In addition, the influence of work-related expertise on tactile and haptic perception was examined in an attempt to determine whether expertise, in the form of the frequent use of the fingers, affects perception and counters age-related losses. The study was conducted with subjects from three age groups (18–25, 34–46, and 54–65 years) with two levels of expertise. Expertise was classified by the subjects’ occupations. Five sensory tasks of touch perception were conducted. The results confirmed age-related changes in tactile perception over the span of one’s working life. Older workers were proven to have lower tactile performance than younger adults. However, middle-aged workers were hardly affected by the perception losses and did not differ significantly from younger adults. Work-related expertise was not proven to either affect tactile and haptic perception or counteract age-related declines. We conclude that the age-related decline gets steeper in the late working life and that specific work-related expertise does not lead to generally improved touch perception that would result in lower thresholds and improved performance in non-expertise specific tasks.


Tactile perception Haptics Aging Expertise 



The research was supported by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgesellschaft, DFG, VO 1432/7-1) as a part of the DFG priority program Age-differentiated work systems (SPP 1184).

Supplementary material

221_2011_2931_MOESM1_ESM.doc (199 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 199 kb)


  1. Alary F, Duquette M, Goldstein R, Elaine Chapman C, Voss P, La Buissonnière-Ariza V et al. (2009). Tactile acuity in the blind: a closer look reveals superiority over the sighted in some but not all cutaneous tasks. Neuropsychologia 47(10):2037–2043Google Scholar
  2. Allard F, Starkes JL (1980) Perception in sport: volleyball. J Sport Psychol 2:22–33Google Scholar
  3. Ballesteros S, Heller MA (2008) Haptic object identification. In: Grunwald M (ed) Human haptic perception: basics and applications. Birkhäuser, Basel, Boston, p ix, p 676Google Scholar
  4. Bleyenheuft Y, Thonnard JL (2007) Tactile spatial resolution measured manually: a validation study. Somatosens Mot Res 24(3):111–114PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bortz J (1999) Statistik für Sozialwissenschaftler. Springer, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  6. Cole KJ (1991) Grasp force control in older adults. J Mot Behav 23(4):251–258PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Collins DF, Knight B, Prochazka A (1999) Contact-evoked changes in EMG activity during human grasp. J Neurophysiol 81(5):2215–2225Google Scholar
  8. Craig JC, Kisner JM (1998) Factors affecting tactile spatial acuity. Somatosens Mot Res 15(1):29–45PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Craig JC, Rhodes RP, Busey TA, Kewley-Port D, Humes LE (2010) Aging and tactile temporal order. Atten Percept Psychophys 72(1):226–235PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Decker SL (2010) Tactile measures in the structure of intelligence. Can J Exp Psychol 64(1):53–59PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Deshpande N, Metter EJ, Ling S, Conwit R, Ferrucci L (2008) Physiological correlates of age-related decline in vibrotactile sensitivity. Neurobiol Aging 29(5):765–773PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dinse HR (2006) Cortical reorganization in the aging brain. Prog Brain Res 157:57–80PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dinse HR, Kalisch T, Ragert P, Pleger B, Schwenkreis P, Tegenthoff M (2005) Improving human haptic performance in normal and impaired human populations through unattended activation-based learning. ACM Trans Appl Percept 2(2):71–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dinse HR, Kleibel N, Kalisch T, Ragert P, Wilimzig C, Tegenthoff M (2006) Tactile coactivation resets age-related decline of human tactile discrimination. Ann Neurol 60(1):88–94PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dinse HR, Wilimzig C, Kalisch T (2008) Learning effects in haptic perception. In: Grunwald M (ed) Human haptic perception: basics and applications. Birkhäuser, Basel, Boston, p ix, p 676Google Scholar
  16. Elbert T, Pantev C, Wienbruch C, Rockstroh B, Taub E (1995) Increased cortical representation of the fingers of the left hand in string players. Science 270(5234):305–307PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Ericsson KA, Smith J (1991) Toward a general theory of expertise: prospects and limits. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  18. Ericsson K, Prietula M, Cokely E (2007) The making of an expert. Har Bus Rev 85(7/8):114Google Scholar
  19. Förster J, Higgins ET, Bianco AT (2003) Speed/accuracy decisions in task performance: built-in trade-off or separate strategic concerns?* 1. Organ Behav Hum Decis Process 90(1):148–164CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Godde B, Diamond ME, Braun C (2010) Feeling for space or for time: Task-dependent modulation of the cortical representation of identical vibrotactile stimuli. Neurosci Lett 480(2):143–147PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Goldreich D, Kanics IM (2003) Tactile acuity is enhanced in blindness. J Neurosci 23(8):3439–3445PubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Goldreich D, Kanics IM (2006) Performance of blind and sighted humans on a tactile grating detection task. Percept Psychophys 68(8):1363–1371PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Grant AC, Thiagarajah MC, Sathian K (2000) Tactile perception in blind braille readers: a psychophysical study of acuity and hyperacuity using gratings and dot patterns. Percept Psychophys 62:301–312PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Greenspan J, Bolanowski S (1996) The psychophysics of tactile perception and its peripheral physiological basis. Pain Touch 2:25–103CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gruber H, Lehmann AC (2007) Entwicklung von Expertise und Hochleistung in Musik und Sport, vol 26. Universität Regensburg, Lehrstuhl für Lehr-Lern-Forschung, RegensburgGoogle Scholar
  26. Harris JA, Arabzadeh E, Fairhall AL, Benito C, Diamond ME (2006) Factors affecting frequency discrimination of vibrotactile stimuli: implications for cortical encoding. PLoS One 1:e100. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000100 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Helsen W, Starkes J (1999) A multidimensional approach to skilled perception and performance in sport. Appl Cogn Psychol 13(1):1–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Heuninckx S, Wenderoth N, Debaere F, Peeters R, Swinnen SP (2005) Neural basis of aging: the penetration of cognition into action control. J Neurosci 25(29):6787–6796PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hodges NJ, Starkes JL, MacMahon C (2006) Expert performance in sport: a cognitive perspective. In: Ericsson KA, Charness N, Feltovich PJ, Hoffmann RR (eds) The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 471–488Google Scholar
  30. Hollins M (2002) Touch and haptics. In: Pashler HE (ed) Stevens’ handbook of experimental psychology, vol 1, 3rd edn. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  31. Hsiao SS (2010) Cutaneous perception—physiology. The encyclopedia of perception. SAGE, Thousand OaksGoogle Scholar
  32. Johnson K (2001) Neural basis of haptic perception. In: Pashler HE (ed) Stevens’ handbook of experimental psychology, vol 1, 3rd edn. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  33. Johnson KO, Hsiao SS (1992) Neural Mechanisms of Tactual form and Texture Perception. Annu Rev Neurosci 15(1):227–250PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Johnson KO, Yoshioka T, Vega-Bermudez F (2000) Tactile functions of mechanoreceptive afferents innervating the hand. J Clin Neurophysiol 17(6):539–558PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kalisch T, Tegenthoff M, Dinse HR (2008) Improvement of sensorimotor functions in old age by passive sensory stimulation. Clin Interv Aging 3(4):673–690PubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Kalisch T, Ragert P, Schwenkreis P, Dinse HR, Tegenthoff M (2009) Impaired tactile acuity in old age is accompanied by enlarged hand representations in somatosensory cortex. Cereb Cortex 19(7):1530–1538PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kaneko A, Asai N, Kanda T (2005) The influence of age on pressure perception of static and moving two-point discrimination in normal subjects. J Hand Ther 18(4):421–424 (quiz 425)PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Karim AA, Schuler A, Hegner YL, Friedel E, Godde B (2006) Facilitating effect of 15-Hz repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation on tactile perceptual learning. J Cogn Neurosci 18(9):1577–1585PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kinoshita H, Francis PR (1996) A comparison of prehension force control in young and elderly individuals. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 74(5):450–460PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lacey S, Sathian K (2008) Haptically evoked activation of visual cortex. In: Grunwald M (ed) Human haptic perception: basics and applications. Birkhäuser, Basel, Boston, pp 251–257Google Scholar
  41. Leek MR (2001) Adaptive procedures in psychophysical research. Percept Psychophys 63(8):1279–1292PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Legge GE, Madison C, Vaughn BN, Cheong AM, Miller JC (2008) Retention of high tactile acuity throughout the life span in blindness. Percept Psychophys 70(8):1471–1488PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Manning H, Tremblay F (2006) Age differences in tactile pattern recognition at the fingertip. Somatosens Mot Res 23(3–4):147–155PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Morrow DG, Leirer V, Altieri P, Fitzsimmons C (1994) When expertise reduces age differences in performance. Psychol Aging 9(1):134–148PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Nevid JS (2003) Psychology: concepts and applications. Houghton Mifflin, BostonGoogle Scholar
  46. Nielsen JB, Cohen LG (2008) The olympic brain. Does corticospinal plasticity play a role in acquisition of skills required for high-performance sports? J Physiol 586(1):65–70PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Norman JF, Kappers AML, Beers AM, Scott AK, Norman HF, Koenderink JJ (2011) Aging and the haptic perception of 3D surface shape. Atten Percept Psychophys 73:908–918PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Oldfield RC (1971) The assessment and analysis of handedness: the Edinburgh inventory. Neuropsychologia 9(1):97–113Google Scholar
  49. Pantev C, Oostenveld R, Engelien A, Ross B, Roberts LE, Hoke M (1998) Increased auditory cortical representation in musicians. Nature 392(6678):811–814PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Pascual-Leone A, Torres F (1993) Plasticity of the sensorimotor cortex representation of the reading finger in Braille readers. Brain 116(1):39–52PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Phillips LH, Rabbitt PMA (1995) Impulsivity and speed-accuracy strategies in intelligence test performance. Intelligence 21(1):13–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Pick P, Brüggemann J, Grote C, Grünhagen E, Lampert T (2004) Schwerpunktbericht zur Gesundheitsberichterstattung des Bundes. Robert-Koch-Institut, Pflege BerlinGoogle Scholar
  53. Ragert P, Schmidt A, Altenmüller E, Dinse HR (2004) Superior tactile performance and learning in professional pianists: evidence for meta-plasticity in musicians. Eur J Neurosci 19(2):473–478PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Röder B, Rösler F, Spence C (2004) Early vision impairs tactile perception in the blind. Curr Biol 14(2):121–124PubMedGoogle Scholar
  55. Rosenbaum DA (2010) Human motor control. Academic Press/Elsevier, San DiegoGoogle Scholar
  56. Salthouse TA (1985) A theory of cognitive aging. North-Holland, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  57. Salthouse TA, Berish DE, Miles JD (2002) The role of cognitive stimulation on the relations between age and cognitive functioning. Psychol Aging 17(4):548–557PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Sathian K (2005) Visual cortical activity during tactile perception in the sighted and the visually deprived. Dev Psychobiol 46(3):279–286PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Shephard RJ (1998) Aging and exercise. Encyclopedia of sports medicine and science. In: Fahey TD (ed) Internet Society for Sport Science. Accessed 14 March 2011
  60. Sonnentag S, Kleine BM (2000) Deliberate practice at work: a study with insurance agents. J Occup Organ Psychol 73(1):87–102CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Stankov L, Seizova-Cajic T, Roberts RD (2001) Tactile and kinesthetic perceptual processes within the taxonomy of human cognitive abilities. Intelligence 29(1):1–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Sterr A, Muller MM, Elbert T, Rockstroh B, Pantev C, Taub E (1998) Perceptual correlates of changes in cortical representation of fingers in blind multifinger Braille readers. J Neurosci 18(11):4417–4423PubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Stevens JC (1992) Aging and spatial acuity of touch. J Gerontol 47(1):P35–P40PubMedGoogle Scholar
  64. Stevens JC, Patterson MQ (1995) Dimensions of spatial acuity in the touch sense: changes over the life span. Somatosens Mot Res 12(1):29–47PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Stevens JC, Foulke E, Patterson M (1996) Tactile acuity, aging, and Braille reading in long-term blindness. J Exp Psychol Appl 2:91–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Trautmann M, Voelcker-Rehage C, Godde B (2011) Fit between workers’ competencies and job demands as predictor for job performance over the work career [Passung zwischen Kompetenzen der Mitarbeiter und Anforderungen des Arbeitsplatzes als Prädiktor für Leistung über das Arbeitsleben]. J Labour Market Res (in press). doi: 10.1007/s12651-011-0078-2
  67. Tremblay F, Wong K, Sanderson R, Cote L (2003) Tactile spatial acuity in elderly persons: assessment with grating domes and relationship with manual dexterity. Somatosens Mot Res 20(2):127–132PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Tsang PS, Shaner TL (1998) Age, attention, expertise, and time-sharing performance. Psychol Aging 13(2):323–347PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Van Boven RW, Johnson KO (1994) The limit of tactile spatial resolution in humans: grating orientation discrimination at the lip, tongue, and finger. Neurology 44(12):2361–2366PubMedGoogle Scholar
  70. Van Boven RW, Hamilton RH, Kauffman T, Keenan JP, Pascual-Leone A (2000) Tactile spatial resolution in blind braille readers. Neurology 54(12):2230–2236PubMedGoogle Scholar
  71. Vega-Bermudez F, Johnson KO (2001) Differences in spatial acuity between digits. Neurology 56(10):1389–1391PubMedGoogle Scholar
  72. Verrillo RT, Bolanowski SJ, Gescheider GA (2002) Effect of aging on the subjective magnitude of vibration. Somatosens Mot Res 19(3):238–244PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Voelcker-Rehage C, Godde B (2010) High frequency sensory stimulation improves tactile but not motor performance in older adults. Mot Control 14(4):460Google Scholar
  74. Wickremaratchi MM, Llewelyn JG (2005) Effects of ageing on touch. Postgrad Med J 2006(82):301–304Google Scholar
  75. Wong M, Gnanakumaran V, Goldreich D (2011) Tactile spatial acuity enhancement in blindness: evidence for experience-dependent mechanisms. J Neurosci 31(19):7028–7037PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eva-Maria Reuter
    • 1
  • Claudia Voelcker-Rehage
    • 1
  • Solveig Vieluf
    • 1
  • Ben Godde
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Jacobs Center on Lifelong Learning and Institutional DevelopmentJacobs University BremenBremenGermany

Personalised recommendations