Tactile sensibility in the human hand: relative and absolute densities of four types of mechanoreceptive units in glabrous skin

J Physiol. 1979 Jan:286:283-300. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.1979.sp012619.


1. Single unit impulses were recorded with percutaneously inserted tungsten needle electrodes from the median nerve in conscious human subjects. 2. A sample of 334 low threshold mechanoreceptive units innervating the glabrous skin area of the hand were studied. In accordance with earlier investigations, the units were separated into four groups on the basis of their adaptation and receptive field properties: RA, PC, SA I and SA II units. 3. The locations of the receptive fields of individual units were determined and the relative unit densities within various skin regions were calculated. The over-all density was found to increase in the proximo-distal direction. There was a slight increase from the palm to the main part of the finger and an abrupt increase from the main part of the finger to the finger tip. The relative densities in these three regions were 1, 1.6, 4.2. 4. The differences in over-all density were essentially accounted for by the two types of units characterized by small and well defined receptive fields, the RA and SA I units, whereas the PC and SA II units were almost evenly distributed over the whole glabrous skin area. 5. The spatial distribution of densities supports the idea that the RA and SA I units account for spatial acuity in psychophysical tests. This capacity is known to increase in distal direction along the hand. 6. On the basis of histological data regarding the number of myelinated fibres in the median nerve, a model of the absolute unit density was proposed. It was estimated that the density of low threshold mechanoreceptive units at the finger tip is as high as 241 u./cm2, whereas in the palm it is only 58 u./cm2.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Hand / innervation
  • Hand / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mechanoreceptors / physiology*
  • Median Nerve / physiology
  • Nerve Fibers, Myelinated / physiology
  • Skin / innervation*
  • Touch / physiology*