Because tactile perception relies on the response of large populations of receptors distributed across the skin, we seek to characterize how a mechanical deformation of the skin at one location affects the skin at another. To this end, we introduce a novel non-contact method to characterize the surface waves produced in the skin under a variety of stimulation conditions. Specifically, we deliver vibrations to the fingertip using a vibratory actuator and measure, using a laser Doppler vibrometer, the surface waves at different distances from the locus of stimulation. First, we show that a vibration applied to the fingertip travels at least the length of the finger and that the rate at which it decays is dependent on stimulus frequency. Furthermore, the resonant frequency of the skin matches the frequency at which a subpopulation of afferents, namely Pacinian afferents, is most sensitive. We show that this skin resonance can lead to a two-fold increase in the strength of the response of a simulated afferent population. Second, the rate at which vibrations propagate across the skin is dependent on the stimulus frequency and plateaus at 7 m/s. The resulting delay in neural activation across locations does not substantially blur the temporal patterning in simulated populations of afferents for frequencies less than 200 Hz, which has important implications about how vibratory frequency is encoded in the responses of somatosensory neurons. Third, we show that, despite the dependence of decay rate and propagation speed on frequency, the waveform of a complex vibration is well preserved as it travels across the skin. Our results suggest, then, that the propagation of surface waves promotes the encoding of spectrally complex vibrations as the entire neural population is exposed to essentially the same stimulus. We also discuss the implications of our results for biomechanical models of the skin.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)