Spatio-temporal skin strain distributions evoke low variability spike responses in cuneate neurons
A common method to explore the somatosensory function of the brain is to relate skin stimuli to neurophysiological recordings. However, interaction with the skin involves complex mechanical effects. Variability in mechanically induced spike responses is likely to be due in part to mechanical variability of the transformation of stimuli into spiking patterns in the primary sensors located in the skin. This source of variability greatly hampers detailed investigations of the response of the brain to different types of mechanical stimuli. A novel stimulation technique designed to minimize the uncertainty in the strain distributions induced in the skin was applied to evoke responses in single neurons in the cat. We show that exposure to specific spatio-temporal stimuli induced highly reproducible spike responses in the cells of the cuneate nucleus, which represents the first stage of integration of peripheral inputs to the brain. Using precisely controlled spatio-temporal stimuli, we also show that cuneate neurons, as a whole, were selectively sensitive to the spatial and to the temporal aspects of the stimuli. We conclude that the present skin stimulation technique based on localized differential tractions greatly reduces response variability that is exogenous to the information processing of the brain and hence paves the way for substantially more detailed investigations of the brain's somatosensory system.