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Signals in tactile afferents from the fingers eliciting adaptive motor responses during precision grip

Summary

While human subjects lift small objects using the precision grip between the tips of the fingers and thumb the ratio between the grip force and the load force (i.e. the vertical lifting force) is adapted to the friction between the object and the skin. The present report provides direct evidence that signals in tactile afferent units are utilized in this adaptation. Tactile afferent units were readily excited by small but distinct slips between the object and the skin revealed as vibrations in the object. Following such afferent slip responses the force ratio was upgraded to a higher, stable value which provided a safety margin to prevent further slips. The latency between the onset of the a slip and the appearance of the ratio change (74 ±9 ms) was about half the minimum latency for intended grip force changes triggered by cutaneous stimulation of the fingers. This indicated that the motor responses were automatically initiated. If the subjects were asked to very slowly separate their thumb and the opposing finger while the object was held in air, grip force reflexes originating from afferent slip responses appeared to counteract the voluntary command, but the maintained upgrading of the force ratio was suppressed. In experiments with weak electrical cutaneous stimulation delivered through the surfaces of the object it was established that tactile input alone could trigger the upgrading of the force ratio. Although, varying in responsiveness, each of the three types of tactile units which exhibit a pronounced dynamic sensitivity (FA I, FA II and SA I units) could reliably signal these slips. Similar but generally weaker afferent responses, sometimes followed by small force ratio changes, also occurred in the FA I and the SA I units in the absence of detectable vibrations events. In contrast to the responses associated with clear vibratory events, the weaker afferent responses were probably caused by localized frictional slips, i.e. slips limited to small fractions of the skin area in contact with the object. Indications were found that the early adjustment to a new frictional condition, which may appear soon (ca. 0.1–0.2 s) after the object is initially gripped, might depend on the vigorous responses in the FA I units during the initial phase of the lifts (see Westling and Johansson 1987). The role of the tactile input in the adaptation of the force coordination to the frictional condition is discussed.

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Johansson, R.S., Westling, G. Signals in tactile afferents from the fingers eliciting adaptive motor responses during precision grip. Exp Brain Res 66, 141–154 (1987). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00236210

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00236210

Key words

  • Precision grip
  • Motor control
  • Human hand
  • Cutaneous mechanoreceptors
  • Exteroceptive reflexes
  • Sensori-motor memory