Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Weizmann Scientists Find that Humans Can Learn to Use “Whiskers”

07.11.2012
Rats use a sense that humans don’t: “whisking.” They move their facial whiskers back and forth about eight times a second to locate objects in their environment. Could humans acquire this sense? And if so, what could understanding the process of adapting to new sensory input tell us about how humans normally sense?

At the Weizmann Institute of Science, researchers explored these questions by attaching plastic “whiskers” to the fingers of blindfolded volunteers and asking them to carry out a location task. The findings, which recently appeared in The Journal of Neuroscience, have yielded new insight into the process of sensing, and they may point to new avenues in developing aids for the blind.

The scientific team, including Dr. Avraham Saig, Dr. Goren Gordon, and Eldad Assa in the group of Prof. Ehud Ahissar and Dr. Amos Arieli, all of the Department of Neurobiology, attached a “whisker” – a 30-cm-long elastic “hair” with position and force sensors on its base – to the index finger of each hand of a blindfolded subject. Then, two poles were placed at arm’s distance on either side and slightly to the front of the seated subject, with one a bit farther back than the other. Using just their whiskers, the subjects were challenged to figure out which pole – left or right – was further back. As the experiment continued, the displacement between front and back poles was reduced, up to the point where the subject could no longer distinguish front from back.

On the first day of the experiment, subjects picked up the new sense so well that they could correctly identify a pole that was set back by only eight cm. An analysis of the data revealed that the subjects did this by figuring the spatial information from the sensory timing. That is, moving their bewhiskered hands together, they could determine which pole was the back one because the whisker on that hand made contact earlier.

When they repeated the testing the next day, the researchers discovered that the subjects had improved their whisking skills significantly: The average sensory threshold went down to just three cm, with some being able to sense a displacement of just one cm. Interestingly, the ability of the subjects to sense time differences had not changed over the two days. Rather, they had improved in the motor aspects of their whisking strategies: Slowing down their hand motions – in effect lengthening the delay time – enabled them to sense a smaller spatial difference.

Says Dr. Saig: “We know that our senses are linked to muscles, for example ocular and hand muscles. In order to sense the texture of cloth, for example, we move our fingers across it, and to see a stationary object, our eyes must be in constant motion. In this research, we see that changing our physical movements alone – without any corresponding change in the sensitivity of our senses – can be sufficient to sharpen our perception.”

Based on the experiments, the scientists created a statistical model to describe how the subjects updated their “world view” as they acquired new sensory information – up to the point where they were confident enough to rely on that sense. The model, based on principles of information processing, could explain the number of whisking movements needed to arrive at the correct answer, as well as the pattern of scanning the subjects employed – a gradual change from long to short movements. With this strategy, the flow of information remains constant. “The experiment was conducted in a controlled manner, which allowed us direct access to all the relevant variables: hand motion, hand-pole contact, and the reports of the subjects themselves,” says Dr. Gordon. “Not only was there a good fit between the theory and the experimental data, we obtained some useful quantitative information on the process of active sensing.”

“Both sight and touch are based on arrays of receptors that scan the outside world in an active manner,” says Prof. Ahissar. “Our findings reveal some new principles of active sensing, and show us that activating a new artificial sense in a ‘natural’ way can be very efficient.” Arieli adds: “Our vision for the future is to help blind people ‘see’ with their fingers. Small devices that translate video to mechanical stimulation, based on principles of active sensing that are common to vision and touch, could provide an intuitive, easily used sensory aid.”

Prof. Ehud Ahissar’s research is supported by the Murray H. and Meyer Grodetsky Center for Research of Higher Brain Functions; the Jeanne and Joseph Nissim Foundation for Life Sciences Research; the Kahn Family Research Center for Systems Biology of the Human Cell; Lord David Alliance, CBE; the Berlin Family Foundation; Jack and Lenore Lowenthal, Brooklyn, NY; Research in Memory of Irving Bieber, M.D. and Toby Bieber, M.D.; the Harris Foundation for Brain Research; and the Joseph D. Shane Fund for Neurosciences. Prof. Ahissar is the incumbent of the Helen Diller Family Professorial Chair in Neurobiology.

The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, is one of the world's top-ranking multidisciplinary research institutions. Noted for its wide-ranging exploration of the natural and exact sciences, the Institute is home to 2,700 scientists, students, technicians, and supporting staff. Institute research efforts include the search for new ways of fighting disease and hunger, examining leading questions in mathematics and computer science, probing the physics of matter and the universe, creating novel materials, and developing new strategies for protecting the environment.

Jennifer Manning | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://www.acwis.org

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht What happens in the cell nucleus after fertilization
06.12.2016 | Helmholtz Zentrum München - Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Gesundheit und Umwelt

nachricht Researchers uncover protein-based “cancer signature”
05.12.2016 | Universität Basel

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Significantly more productivity in USP lasers

In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.

Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...

Im Focus: Shape matters when light meets atom

Mapping the interaction of a single atom with a single photon may inform design of quantum devices

Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

Im Focus: MADMAX: Max Planck Institute for Physics takes up axion research

The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.

The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Simple processing technique could cut cost of organic PV and wearable electronics

06.12.2016 | Materials Sciences

3-D printed kidney phantoms aid nuclear medicine dosing calibration

06.12.2016 | Medical Engineering

Robot on demand: Mobile machining of aircraft components with high precision

06.12.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>