First spikes in ensembles of human tactile afferents code complex spatial fingertip events

Nat Neurosci. 2004 Feb;7(2):170-7. doi: 10.1038/nn1177. Epub 2004 Jan 18.


It is generally assumed that primary sensory neurons transmit information by their firing rates. However, during natural object manipulations, tactile information from the fingertips is used faster than can be readily explained by rate codes. Here we show that the relative timing of the first impulses elicited in individual units of ensembles of afferents reliably conveys information about the direction of fingertip force and the shape of the surface contacting the fingertip. The sequence in which different afferents initially discharge in response to mechanical fingertip events provides information about these events faster than the fastest possible rate code and fast enough to account for the use of tactile signals in natural manipulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology*
  • Adult
  • Afferent Pathways / physiology*
  • Female
  • Fingers / physiology*
  • Form Perception / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mechanoreceptors / physiology
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Skin / innervation
  • Touch / physiology*