A Variation Code Accounts for the Perceived Roughness of Coarsely Textured Surfaces

Sci Rep. 2017 Apr 25:7:46699. doi: 10.1038/srep46699.


For decades, the dominant theory of roughness coding in the somatosensory nerves posited that perceived roughness was determined by the spatial pattern of activation in one population of tactile nerve fibers, namely slowly adapting type 1 (SA1) afferents. Indeed, the perceived roughness of coarsely textured surfaces tracks the spatial variation in SA1 responses - the degree to which response strength varies across SA1 afferents. However, in a later study, the roughness of a different set of dot patterns was found to be a monotonic function of dot spacing, a result interpreted as evidence that roughness was determined by the strength of SA1 responses - the population firing rate - rather than their spatial layout. Then again, the spatial variation hypothesis was not tested directly as afferent responses to the conflicting patterns were not measured. To fill this gap, we simulated afferent responses to the dot patterns used in these roughness coding experiments using a model of skin mechanics. We then implemented the spatial variation and firing rate models of roughness based on these simulated responses to generate predictions of perceived roughness. We found that the spatial variation model accounts for perceived roughness under all tested conditions whereas the firing rate model does not.

Publication types

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