Precise and stable edge orientation signaling by human first-order tactile neurons
Fast-adapting type 1 (FA-1) and slow-adapting type 1 (SA-1) first-order neurons in the human tactile system have distal axons that branch in the skin and form many transduction sites, yielding receptive fields with many highly sensitive zones or 'subfields'. We previously demonstrated that this arrangement allows FA-1 and SA-1 neurons to signal the geometric features of touched objects, specifically the orientation of raised edges scanned with the fingertips. Here we show that such signaling
... rates for fine edge orientation differences (5-20°) and is stable across a broad range of scanning speeds (15-180 mm/s); that is, under conditions relevant for real-world hand use. We found that both FA-1 and SA-1 neurons weakly signal fine edge orientation differences via the intensity of their spiking responses and only when considering a single scanning speed. Both neuron types showed much stronger edge orientation signaling in the sequential structure of the evoked spike trains and FA-1 neurons performed better than SA-1 neurons. Represented in the spatial domain, the sequential structure was strikingly invariant across scanning speeds, especially those naturally used in tactile spatial discrimination tasks. This speed invariance suggests that neurons' responses are structured via sequential stimulation of their subfields. Indeed, the spatial precision of elicited action potentials rationally matched spatial acuity of subfield arrangements, which typically corresponds to the dimension of individual fingertip ridges. The present results further the idea that the terminal branching of first-order tactile neurons constitutes a peripheral neural mechanism supporting the identification of tactile geometric features.