Fingertip skin conformance accounts, in part, for differences in tactile spatial acuity in young subjects, but not for the decline in spatial acuity with aging

Percept Psychophys. 2004 Jan;66(1):60-7. doi: 10.3758/bf03194861.


The ability of the skin to conform to the spatial details of a surface or an object is an essential part of our ability to discriminate fine spatial features haptically. In this study, we examined the extent to which differences in tactual acuity between subjects of the same age and between younger and older subjects can be accounted for by differences in the properties of the skin. We did so by measuring skin conformance and tactile spatial acuity in the glabrous skin at the fingertip in 18 younger (19-36 years old) and 9 older (61-69 years old) subjects. Skin conformance was measured as the degree to which the skin invaded the spaces in the psychophysical stimuli. There were several findings. First, skin conformance accounted for 50% of the variance in our measure of tactile spatial acuity (the threshold for grating orientation discrimination) between the younger subjects. The subjects with more compliant skin had substantially lower thresholds than did the subjects with stiffer skin. Second, the skin of the younger subjects was more compliant across than along the skin ridges, and this translated into significantly greater performance when the gratings were oriented along than when oriented across the skin. Third, skin conformance was virtually identical in the younger and the older subjects. Consequently, skin conformance cannot account for the loss of spatial acuity reported in earlier studies and confirmed in this study. We infer that the loss must be neural in origin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Aging / psychology
  • Compliance
  • Discrimination Learning / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mechanoreceptors / physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Pliability
  • Psychophysics
  • Reference Values
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology
  • Skin / innervation*
  • Stereognosis / physiology*
  • Touch / physiology*