Sensory adaptation to electrical stimulation of the somatosensory nerves

J Neural Eng. 2018 Aug;15(4):046002. doi: 10.1088/1741-2552/aab790. Epub 2018 Mar 19.


Objective: Sensory systems adapt their sensitivity to ambient stimulation levels to improve their responsiveness to changes in stimulation. The sense of touch is also subject to adaptation, as evidenced by the desensitization produced by prolonged vibratory stimulation of the skin. Electrical stimulation of nerves elicits tactile sensations that can convey feedback for bionic limbs. In this study, we investigate whether artificial touch is also subject to adaptation, despite the fact that the peripheral mechanotransducers are bypassed.

Approach: Using well-established psychophysical paradigms, we characterize the time course and magnitude of sensory adaptation caused by extended electrical stimulation of the residual somatosensory nerves in three human amputees implanted with cuff electrodes.

Main results: We find that electrical stimulation of the nerve also induces perceptual adaptation that recovers after cessation of the stimulus. The time course and magnitude of electrically-induced adaptation are equivalent to their mechanically-induced counterparts.

Significance: We conclude that, in natural touch, the process of mechanotransduction is not required for adaptation, and artificial touch naturally experiences adaptation-induced adjustments of the dynamic range of sensations. Further, as it does for native hands, adaptation confers to bionic hands enhanced sensitivity to changes in stimulation and thus a more natural sensory experience.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Amputees* / rehabilitation
  • Electric Stimulation Therapy / instrumentation
  • Electric Stimulation Therapy / methods*
  • Electrodes, Implanted
  • Evoked Potentials, Somatosensory / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mechanotransduction, Cellular / physiology
  • Peripheral Nerves / physiology*
  • Touch / physiology*