Effect of Tactile Sensory Substitution on the Proprioceptive Error Map of the Arm

Justin Tanner, Gerrit Orthlieb, David Shumate, Stephen Helms Tillery

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Proprioceptive error of estimated fingertip position in two-dimensional space is reduced with the addition of tactile stimulation to the fingertip. This tactile input does not disrupt the subjects’ estimation strategy, as the individual error vector maps maintain their overall geometric structure. This relationship suggests an integration of proprioception and tactile sensory information to enhance proprioceptive estimation. To better understand this multisensory integration, we explored the effect of electrotactile and vibrotactile stimulation to the fingertips in place of actual contact, thus limiting interaction forces. This allowed us to discern any proprioceptive estimation improvement that arose from purely tactile stimulation. Ten right-handed and ten left-handed subjects performed a simple right-handed proprioceptive estimation task under four tactile feedback conditions: hover, touch, electrotactile, and vibrotactile. Target sets were generated for each subject, persisted across all feedback modalities, and targets were presented in randomized orders. Error maps across the workspace were generated using polynomial models of the subjects’ responses. Error maps did not change shape between conditions for any right-handed subjects and changed for a single condition for two left-handed subjects. Non-parametric statistical analysis of the error magnitude shows that both modes of sensory substitution significantly reduce error for right-handed subjects, but not to the level of actual touch. Left-handed subjects demonstrated increased error for all feedback conditions compared to hover. Compared to right-handed subjects, left-handed subjects demonstrated more error in each condition except the hover condition. This is consistent with the hypothesis that the non-dominant hand is specialized for position control, while the dominant is specialized for velocity. Notably, our results suggest that non-dominant hand estimation strategies are hindered by stimuli to the fingertip. We conclude that electrotactile and vibrotactile sensory substitution only succeed in multisensory integration when applied to the dominant hand. These feedback modalities do not disrupt established dominate hand proprioceptive error maps, and existing strategies adapt to the novel input and minimize error. Since actual touch provides the best error reduction, sensory substitution lacks some unidentified beneficial information, such as familiarity or natural sensation. This missing component could also be what confounds subjects using their non-dominant hand for positional tasks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number586740
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
StatePublished - Jul 6 2021


  • electotactile
  • multisensory integration
  • proprioception
  • sensory substitution
  • vibrotactile

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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