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Detection of simulated tactile gratings by electro-static friction show a dependency on bar width for blind and sighted observers, and preliminary neural correlates in sighted observers

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Quoc Vuong, Carla Black, Jessica Smith, Mohamed Nassar, Professor Patrick Degenaar



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


The three-dimensional micro-structure of physical surfaces produces frictional forces that provide sensory cues about properties of felt surfaces such as roughness. This tactile information activates somatosensory cortices, and frontal and temporal brain regions. Recent advances in haptic-feedback technologies allow the simulation of surface micro-structures via electro-static friction to produce touch sensations on otherwise flat screens. These sensations may benefit those with visual impairment or blindness. The primary aim of the current study was to test blind and sighted participants’ perceptual sensitivity to simulated tactile gratings. A secondary aim was to explore which brain regions were involved in simulated touch to further understand the somatosensory brain network for touch. We used a haptic-feedback touchscreen which simulated tactile gratings using digitally manipulated electro-static friction. In Experiment 1, we compared blind and sighted participants’ ability to detect the gratings by touch alone as a function of their spatial frequency (bar width) and intensity. Both blind and sighted participants showed high sensitivity to detect simulated tactile gratings, and their tactile sensitivity functions showed both linear and quadratic dependency on spatial frequency. In Experiment 2, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we conducted a preliminary investigation to explore whether brain activation to physical vibrations correlated with blindfolded (but sighted) participants’ performance with simulated tactile gratings outside the scanner. At the neural level, blindfolded (but sighted) participants’ detection performance correlated with brain activation in bi-lateral supplementary motor cortex, left frontal cortex and right occipital cortex. Taken together with previous studies, these results suggest that there are similar perceptual and neural mechanisms for real and simulated touch sensations.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Vuong QC, Shaaban AM, Black C, Smith J, Nassar M, Abozied A, Degenaar P, Al-Atabany W

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Frontiers in Neuroscience

Year: 2020

Volume: 14

Online publication date: 14/10/2020

Acceptance date: 22/09/2020

Date deposited: 27/10/2020

ISSN (print): 1662-4548

ISSN (electronic): 1662-453X

Publisher: Frontiers


DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2020.548030


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