Topographic generalization of tactile perceptual learning.
Harrar V., Spence C., Makin TR.
Perceptual learning can improve our sensory abilities. Understanding its underlying mechanisms, in particular, when perceptual learning generalizes, has become a focus of research and controversy. Specifically, there is little consensus regarding the extent to which tactile perceptual learning generalizes across fingers. We measured tactile orientation discrimination abilities on 4 fingers (index and middle fingers of both hands), using psychophysical measures, before and after 4 training sessions on 1 finger. Given the somatotopic organization of the hand representation in the somatosensory cortex, the topography of the cortical areas underlying tactile perceptual learning can be inferred from the pattern of generalization across fingers; only fingers sharing cortical representation with the trained finger ought to improve with it. Following training, performance improved not only for the trained finger but also for its adjacent and homologous fingers. Although these fingers were not exposed to training, they nevertheless demonstrated similar levels of learning as the trained finger. Conversely, the performance of the finger that was neither adjacent nor homologous to the trained finger was unaffected by training, despite the fact that our procedure was designed to enhance generalization, as described in recent visual perceptual learning research. This pattern of improved performance is compatible with previous reports of neuronal receptive fields (RFs) in the primary somatosensory cortex (SI) spanning adjacent and homologous digits. We conclude that perceptual learning rooted in low-level cortex can still generalize, and suggest potential applications for the neurorehabilitation of syndromes associated with maladaptive plasticity in SI.