Dimensions of spatial acuity in the touch sense: changes over the life span

Somatosens Mot Res. 1995;12(1):29-47. doi: 10.3109/08990229509063140.


Spatial acuity of the touch sense and its variation in aging came under psychophysical scrutiny at the fingertip and control body sites. Acuity is viewed as encompassing the discrimination of four features of simple stimulus configurations: (11) discontinuity (gaps in lines or disks), (2) locus on the skin, (3) length (or area), and (4) orientation (e.g., along or across the finger). Each of these dimensions of acuity serves uniquely in tactile perception, as illustrated in the structure of braille. For their measurement, psychophysical tests were developed and refined. These were aimed at freedom from bias, rapid estimation of acuity thresholds in hundreds of subjects, and eventual applicability to the whole body surface. Some 14 versions of the tests were administered in three experiments, yielding 1478 individual thresholds. Experiment I (15 young and 15 elderly subjects) and Experiment II (131 subjects, ages 18 to 87 years) shed light on the nature of discrimination of discontiniuty and orientation. These mainly concern pitfalls of measurement and influence of exact stimulus configuration. Experiment III (115 subjects, ages 8 to 86 years) examined refined versions of tests for all four dimensions of acuity. Four principal findings emerged: (1) At all ages, thresholds for the four dimensions of acuity differ from one another in size--in order from smallest to largest: length, locus, orientation, and discontinuity. Exact sizes differ for transverse and longitudinal stimulus alignment. (2) All four acuity dimensions deteriorate with age, to a first approximation manifesting a constant increase in threshold of approximately 1% per annum between ages 20 and 80 years. That similar rates of deterioration characterize all four dimensions in the fingertip suggests a common mechanism, possibly thinning of the same mediating receptor network. (3) Acuity at more central sites (forearm, lip) deteriorates more slowly than at the fingertip. (4) Individual differences in acuity abound, even after the effects of aging are discounted.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Child
  • Female
  • Fingers / innervation
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mechanoreceptors / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Degeneration / physiology
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Psychophysics
  • Reference Values
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology
  • Skin / innervation*
  • Stereognosis / physiology
  • Touch / physiology*