Mapping stiffness perception in the brain with an fMRI-compatible particle-jamming haptic interface

Annu Int Conf IEEE Eng Med Biol Soc. 2014;2014:2051-6. doi: 10.1109/EMBC.2014.6944019.


We demonstrate reliable neural responses to changes in haptic stiffness perception using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) compatible particle-jamming haptic interface. Our haptic interface consists of a silicone tactile surface whose stiffness we can control by modulating air-pressure in a sub-surface pouch of coarsely ground particles. The particles jam together as the pressure decreases, which stiffens the surface. During fMRI acquisition, subjects performed a constant probing task, which involved continuous contact between the index fingertip and the interface and rhythmic increases and decreases in fingertip force (1.6 Hz) to probe stiffness. Without notifying subjects, we randomly switched the interface's stiffness (switch time, 300-500 ms) from soft (200 N/m) to hard (1400 N/m). Our experiment design's constant motor activity and cutaneous tactile sensation helped disassociate neural activation for both from stiffness perception, which helped localized it to a narrow region in somatosensory cortex near the supra-marginal gyrus. Testing different models of neural activation, we found that assuming indepedent stiffness-change responses at both soft-hard and hard-soft transitions provides the best explanation for observed fMRI measurements (three subjects; nine four-minute scan runs each). Furthermore, we found that neural activation related to stiffness-change and absolute stiffness can be localized to adjacent but disparate anatomical locations. We also show that classical finger-tapping experiments activate a swath of cortex and are not suitable for localizing stiffness perception. Our results demonstrate that decorrelating motor and sensory neural activation is essential for characterizing somatosensory cortex, and establish particle-jamming haptics as an attractive low-cost method for fMRI experiments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Artifacts
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Mechanical Phenomena*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Motor Activity
  • Perception*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Time Factors
  • Touch*
  • User-Computer Interface*
  • Young Adult