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How our sense of touch is a lot like the way we hear
Date:12/11/2012

When you walk into a darkened room, your first instinct is to feel around for a light switch. You slide your hand along the wall, feeling the transition from the doorframe to the painted drywall, and then up and down until you find the metal or plastic plate of the switch. During the process you use your sense of touch to develop an image in your mind of the wall's surface and make a better guess for where the switch is.

Sliman Bensmaia, PhD, assistant professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago, studies the neural basis of tactile perception, or how our hands convey this information to the brain. In a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, he and his colleagues found that the timing and frequency of vibrations produced in the skin when you run your hands along a surface, like searching a wall for a light switch, plays an important role in how we use our sense of touch to gather information about the objects and surfaces around us.

The sense of touch has traditionally been thought of in spatial terms, i.e. receptors in the skin are spread out across a grid of sorts, and when you touch something this grid of receptors transmits information about the surface to your brain. In their new study, Bensmaia, two former undergraduates, and a postdoctoral scholar in his labMatthew Best, Emily Mackevicius and Hannes Saalfound that the skin is also highly sensitive to vibrations, and that these vibrations produce corresponding oscillations in the afferents, or nerves, that carry information from the receptors to the brain. The precise timing and frequency of these neural responses convey specific messages about texture to the brain, much like the frequency of vibrations on the eardrum conveys information about sound.

Neurons communicate through electrical bits, similar to the digital ones and zeros used by computers. But, Bensmaia said, "One of the big questions in neuroscience is whether it's just
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Contact: Matt Wood
matthew.wood@uchospitals.edu
773-702-5894
University of Chicago Medical Center
Source:Eurekalert

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