Lingual electrotactile discrimination ability is associated with the presence of specific connective tissue structures (papillae) on the tongue surface
Electrical stimulation of nerve endings in the tongue can be used to communicate information to users and has been shown to be highly effective in sensory substitution applications. The anterior tip of the tongue has very small somatosensory receptive fields, comparable to those of the finger tips, allowing for precise two-point discrimination and high tactile sensitivity. However, perception of electrotactile stimuli varies significantly between users, and across the tongue surface. Despite
... surface. Despite this, previous studies all used uniform electrode grids to stimulate a region of the dorsal-medial tongue surface. In an effort to customize electrode layouts for individual users, and thus improve efficacy for sensory substitution applications, we investigated whether specific neuroanatomical and physiological features of the tongue are associated with enhanced ability to perceive active electrodes. Specifically, the study described here was designed to test whether fungiform papillae density and/or propylthiouracil sensitivity are positively or negatively associated with perceived intensity and/or discrimination ability for lingual electrotactile stimuli. Fungiform papillae number and distribution were determined for 15 participants and they were exposed to patterns of electrotactile stimulation (ETS) and asked to report perceived intensity and perceived number of stimuli. Fungiform papillae number and distribution were then compared to ETS characteristics using comprehensive and rigorous statistical analyses. Our results indicate that fungiform papillae density is correlated with enhanced discrimination ability for electrical stimuli. In contrast, papillae density, on average, is not correlated with perceived intensity of active electrodes. However, results for at least one participant suggest that further research is warranted. Our data indicate that propylthiouracil taster status is not related to ETS perceived intensity or discrimination ability. These data indicate that individuals with higher fungiform papillae number and density in the anterior medial tongue region may be better able to use lingual ETS for sensory substitution.