Insight Into Neural Language Enables Amputees to Discern Light Touch to Intense Pressure

Summary:A new prosthetic system allows amputees to feel the same intensity of pressure on their prosthetic hand as they can feel with their natural hand.

Source: Case Western Reserve.

Electrical stimulation mimics natural touch, enabling amputees to feel a range of intensity that allows them to hold a child’s hand, precisely operate machinery and more.

Walking through a busy store, Keith Vonderhuevel confidently held his 5-year-old granddaughter’s hand with his prosthetic hand. Feedback in the form of electrical pulses that mimic pressure, told him how intensely he grasped her hand.

“And I can feel when she yanks her hand out,” said Vonderhuevel, of Sidney, Ohio.

At home, he used the prosthetic and his intact hand to pick up his 2-year-old granddaughter when she ran to him in his living room.

“Being able to grab her and feel I wasn’t squeezing too tight and to play with her is amazing,” he said.

Normally, amputees receive no feedback from their prosthetics and don’t like to shake hands, touch a face or hold a loved one for fear of hurting them.

But Vonderhuevel is one of two amputees who have been testing a prosthetic system that allows them to feel the same intensity of pressure on their prosthetic hands as they feel with their intact hands, researchers from Case Western Reserve University, the Louis R. Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center and the University of Chicago report in a new study.

The scientists and engineers found how the nervous system encodes the intensity of tactile perception–something that was impossible to reveal studying intact hands alone, but essential to restoring the sense of touch and dexterity.

This work builds on earlier research that showed varying patterns of electrical signals provide the amputees with familiar sensations, such as the touch of a cotton ball or the press of the tip of a ball-point pen.

Their research is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

“The ability to discriminate how hard you’re applying pressure is key to complex manipulation of objects and for human interactions,” said Dustin Tyler, biomedical engineering professor at Case Western Reserve and the primary investigator of the research. “Electrical stimulation gives the subjects in this research the same sensitivity to hold or press as you and I have.”

How the system works

The system starts with pressure sensors on the prosthetic hand, sending signals to a portable stimulator. In turn, the stimulator sends electrical pulses to cuffs that encircle major nerve bundles in the arm–nerves that used to control the hand. Contact points on the cuffs transfer the electrical pulses, stimulating the nerves, which carry signals to the brain. The brain discerns different levels of intensity.

With the system, Igor Spetic, of Madison, Ohio, used his prosthetic hand to operate a lathe. He deftly turned the handle to shave different sections of a spinning aluminum bar to different diameters, trimming hundredths of an inch with each pass.

“I could feel the handle with the prosthetic hand and, instead of watching the hand, I watched the part–as you’re supposed to,” Spetic said.

He can squeeze a line of ketchup on a hot dog without spilling, pick up eggs off the counter without breaking them, hold a heavy frying pan or dog on a leash and use yard tools–and so can Vonderhuevel.

Image shows a person's hand being stimulated.
Testing showed that with the right electrical signals, the amputees could feel the same intensity of pressure in their prosthetic hand as they could with their intact hand. image is credited to Emily Graczyk.

“I squeeze harder if the object is harder or heavier, but if it’s fragile, I stop squeezing as soon as I feel sensation,” Spetic said.


In this study, led by Emily Graczyk, a PhD student in Tyler’s lab, the researchers found that Spetic and Vonderhuevel can discern 20 distinct levels of intensity that the volunteers interpreted as pressure.

They tested the volunteer’s ability to discern intensity three ways:

  • Distinguishing how small of a difference in stimulation they could detect as different pressure levels
  • Rating the intensity of different signals.
  • Comparing and matching the intensity of sensation on their missing hand with measured pressure placed on their intact hand.

During the last test, the researchers found that Spetic and Vonderhuevel could reliably correlate the two.

On an intact hand, increasing pressure on the skin increases the firing rate of nerve fibers at that location and nearby fibers are also recruited, or activated. But until now, no one knew for sure how each of these neural responses influences sensory magnitude.

“People have been trying to study this a long time, but you can’t study it with an intact hand–when it touches something, both processes occur,” Graczyk said.

The researchers found that the electrical pulse frequency affects the firing rate of the nerve fibers and the charge per pulse affects the neural recruitment.

“We can decouple the intensity and frequency of the electrical signal and deliver one at a time,” Graczyk said.

By doing so, the researchers found that perceived intensity is predicted by the combination of pulse frequency and charge per pulse. They call this parameter the activation charge rate.

Sliman Bensmaia, associate professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago, is a senior author of the study. He predicted from earlier research that, in response to a given stimulus, the number of times populations of nerve fibers fire– known as the population spike rate–would determine the perceived intensity of a stimulus.

Hypothesis confirmed

The study confirmed his hypothesis, showing the activation charge rate approximates the total spike rate evoked in the activated nerve bundle. The finding helps the researchers understand how people perceive what’s in their hands, which will lead to better prosthetics, Tyler said.

“The more natural the feedback they receive,” Tyler said, “the less someone has to concentrate and look at the prosthetic hand, and the more normal the operation. But the real implications go well beyond that. This may enable us to retrieve tactile information remotely, the way we use cameras to see remotely.”

In the future, the operator of a robotic explorer on the ocean floor or a bomb-squad robot could feel through the controls what the robots touch, Tyler said.

To learn more, the researchers are exploring what sensations are produced by the electrical signals and how the sensations improve functional capabilities. The volunteers will continue to test take-home versions of the prosthetic system.

About this neurology research article

Funding: The research is supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) HAPTIX program through the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, Pacific (SSC Pacific) under Contract No. N66001-15-C-4014; Merit Review Award #I01 RX00133401 and Center #C3819C from the United States (U.S.) Department of Veterans Affairs Rehabilitation Research and Development Service Program; the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DGE-1451075; and Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Institute of the National Institutes of Health under award number T32AR007505.

Source: Kevin Mayhood – Case Western Reserve
Image Source: image is credited to Emily Graczyk.
Video Source: The video is credited to Case Western Reserve.
Original Research: Full open access research for “The neural basis of perceived intensity in natural and artificial touch” by Emily L. Graczyk, Matthew A. Schiefer, Hannes P. Saal, Benoit P. Delhaye, Sliman J. Bensmaia and Dustin J. Tyler in Science Translational Medicine. Published online October 26 2016 doi:10.1126/scitranslmed.aaf5187

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Case Western Reserve. “Insight Into Neural Language Enables Amputees to Discern Light Touch to Intense Pressure.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 29 October 2016.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Case Western Reserve. (2016, October 29). Insight Into Neural Language Enables Amputees to Discern Light Touch to Intense Pressure. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved October 29, 2016 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Case Western Reserve. “Insight Into Neural Language Enables Amputees to Discern Light Touch to Intense Pressure.” (accessed October 29, 2016).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


The neural basis of perceived intensity in natural and artificial touch

Electrical stimulation of sensory nerves is a powerful tool for studying neural coding because it can activate neural populations in ways that natural stimulation cannot. Electrical stimulation of the nerve has also been used to restore sensation to patients who have suffered the loss of a limb. We have used long-term implanted electrical interfaces to elucidate the neural basis of perceived intensity in the sense of touch. To this end, we assessed the sensory correlates of neural firing rate and neuronal population recruitment independently by varying two parameters of nerve stimulation: pulse frequency and pulse width. Specifically, two amputees, chronically implanted with peripheral nerve electrodes, performed each of three psychophysical tasks—intensity discrimination, magnitude scaling, and intensity matching—in response to electrical stimulation of their somatosensory nerves. We found that stimulation pulse width and pulse frequency had systematic, cooperative effects on perceived tactile intensity and that the artificial tactile sensations could be reliably matched to skin indentations on the intact limb. We identified a quantity we termed the activation charge rate (ACR), derived from stimulation parameters, that predicted the magnitude of artificial tactile percepts across all testing conditions. On the basis of principles of nerve fiber recruitment, the ACR represents the total population spike count in the activated neural population. Our findings support the hypothesis that population spike count drives the magnitude of tactile percepts and indicate that sensory magnitude can be manipulated systematically by varying a single stimulation quantity.

“The neural basis of perceived intensity in natural and artificial touch” by Emily L. Graczyk, Matthew A. Schiefer, Hannes P. Saal, Benoit P. Delhaye, Sliman J. Bensmaia and Dustin J. Tyler in Science Translational Medicine. Published online October 26 2016 doi:10.1126/scitranslmed.aaf5187

Feel free to share this Neuroscience News.
Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.