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Name_________________________________________________ Lab section________________


Sensory Systems Pre-Lab Report

Read through the lab manual material for this lab and refer to the material covered in the lectures on
excitability and action potentials, then answer the questions below. (5 points Total).

Is your ability to discriminate mechanical stimuli greater in your fingertip than in the back of your
neck? Why or why not? (2 pt)

What is sensory adaptation? (1 pt)

What sensory stimuli in this lab show adaptation? (1 pt)

In this lab we examine the sense of touch and proprioception (internal sense of force or position).
Are these both forms of mechanosensory input? (1 pt)

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Sensory Systems
The ability of all living creatures to acquire, process, store and
transmit information is key to their survival. Sensing
environmental stimuli such as thermal, visual, chemical, or
mechanical signals underlies the ability of animals to move
effectively in their environment, to control the environment that
they experience and to regulate their own internal environment.
Indeed, animals are capable of amazing sensory feats
including the ability to detect electric or magnetic fields, see
The fly is a Laphria grossa (a species of Bee-like
visual signals in infrared or ultraviolet wavelengths, detect Robber Flies, Gen. Laphria) from Florida. Photo is a
composite of 11 individual macro images with very
minute concentrations of chemicals or hear (and produce) limited depth of field, merged together to create an
extended focus image by Armin Hinterwirth
sounds at ultra-high frequencies. All of that sensing underlies
communication, regulation, and much more. In this lab we will use a model organism (the human) to
How does the distribution of sensory neurons reflect functional requirements for sensing?
How do sensory neurons adapt to a stimulus and what are the consequences of adaptation?
In addition, we can use data derived from all members of the class to ask broader questions about the
variation in human sensory performance. (How variable is our ability to sense mechanical stimuli? Does
age or gender matter?)

I. Receptive fields: two point discrimination

and tactile localization.
In all animals, mechanical information (touch, pressure, pain) is
converted into neural signals by a vast array of mechanosensory
neurons whose dendritic endings respond to mechanical forces
via stretch sensitive ion channels. Many of these channels
provide a passage for positive ions, depolarizing neurons to a
threshold where action potentials may be generated.
In humans (we will use them for our study animals in this lab) as
in all other animals, the distribution of mechanosensory cells is
extremely uneven. In some areas, these cells are densely
distributed over the surface, whereas others have far fewer
dendritic endings. That unevenness reflects the functional roles
played by different parts of your body. Interestingly, the number
and density of neurons is also reflected in the fraction of the brain
associated with processing sensory information. Regions with
many neurons (e.g. fingers or lips) have large fractions of your
brain designated for those areas. Others body regions, with far
fewer neurons innervating the surface, have much less brain area
devoted to them. Figure 46.21

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EXPERIMENT 1: Two-Point Discrimination and Distribution
Touch receptors are distributed unevenly across the body. Some regions have dense distribution
while others have sparse distribution. Two-point discrimination is a simple way to determine densities
across various areas of the body.
1.) Beginning with calipers set to a distance of 80mm, and the subjects eyes closed, touch the dorsal
(back) side of the subjects hand and ask her/him to report if one or two points are sensed.
2.) Repeat this procedure while reducing the caliper settings by 10mm increments until only one
stimulus is perceived. While doing so, touch your partners hand with only one caliper tip at
random intervals. This will prevent your subject from guessing what stimulus will be applied.
3.) Record the distance at which only one stimulus is perceived (Table 1). This is known as a critical
4.) Continue this experiment for the other parts of the body: palm of hand, index fingertip, forearm
(non-hairy, ventral surface), upper arm (outer surface), shin, back of neck. Note that some of the
more sensitive areas of the body may display a very small critical point. In such instances, use
smaller spacing intervals when decreasing the spread of the calipers, such as 1mm.

Region Distance (mm)
Back of hand
Palm of hand
Index finger tip
Upper arm
Inner Forearm
Back of neck

1.) Discuss how two-point discrimination varies with region.
2.) Suggest how two-point discrimination might reflect the functional demands of those regions for
mechanosensory input.

EXPERIMENT 2: Tactile Localization

Tactile localization is the perception of a stimulus at a specific location on the body. Like two-point
discrimination, it reflects the density of neurons innervating particular regions. Here, however, we
have the task of recreating where we detected a sensory stimulus.
Precision of locating the stimulus origin is associated with stimulus intensity as well as receptor
density at the stimulus location. Since receptors are not distributed evenly across the dermis, different
parts of the body have different capacities to locate the stimulus.
1.) Use the non-dominant arm as the marking arm. Have the subject close his/her eyes during this
test. The subject will sit relaxed with one arm resting on the table, palm up, with the other hand
resting on the arm above the elbow.
2.) Using a pen that will leave a mark on your subjects palm (such as a permanent marker), touch a
point on the subjects palm. Be sure to be as consistent as possible with the pressure you use on
the pen.
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3.) Give the pen to the subject and have her/him attempt to touch the spot where the initial touch was
made, using his/her dominant arm. Make sure his/her eyes remain closed.
4.) Measure and record the distance between the two marks (Table 2).
5.) Repeat this test 2 more times for each body region listed in Table 4, marking in a different area
each time. Calculate the average distance for each body region.
6.) Create a figure that sequentially shows the distance error in each of the 3 trials for each body
region. Include data for each of the 3 body regions on one figure.

Trial Palm of hand Fingertip Inner
error (mm) error (mm) forearm error

1.) Does the error of localization vary with the region? How? Discuss why.
2.) Based on your results from the prior experiment, does the error of localization vary in a similar
manner as your ability to discriminate two points? Why or why not?
3.) Does learning or experience modify the accuracy of localization?
4.) What neural disorders might you diagnose using either of these two experiments?

EXPERIMENT 3: Tactile Localization and Stimulus Intensity

As mentioned above, both the intensity of the stimulus and the density of neurons determine your
ability to localize a stimulus.
(1) Develop a hypothesis for how you think the intensity of the stimulus will determine your ability
to localize that stimulus.
Using the same protocol as in Experiment 2, fill out the table below. You should feel free to use
any reasonable region of the body (palm, arm, leg). Please indicate the region have selected.

TABLE 3 Region____________________

Trial Lighter touch Heavier touch

to region (mm) to region (mm)

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EXPERIMENT 4: Adaptation to a mechanical stimulus
The experiments above may be confounded by the ability of sensory neurons to adapt to the stimulus
you delivered. Many sensory receptors respond strongly to acute changes in the environment and
cease responding when the stimuli become constant. This phenomenon is known as sensory
adaptation. For example, our sense of smell quickly adapts to the odors of the laboratory, while our
touch receptors soon cease to inform us of our clothing until these stimuli change. Here we will focus
on three sensory adaptations. In this simple experiment we are mimicking the clothing effect where
our sense of a mechanical stimulus fades in time.

1.) Place a cork on the back of your partners hand and measure the time required for the initial
sensation from the pressure of the cork to abate.
2.) Repeat an additional 2 times and calculate the average time.

Trial Time (s)

1.) Is there much variability in recognition time among trials? Explain.
2.) How does adaptation correlated with receptor density, if at all?
2.) What are some evolutionary advantages of sensory adaptation? Disadvantages?

EXPERIMENT 5: Adaptation to a thermal stimulus

The experiments above focused on detecting external mechanical stimuli. Sensory systems can also
encode thermal stimuli and, like the responses to mechanical stimuli, can show adaptation. In this
experiment, you will explore adaptation to thermal stimuli.
1.) Fill two plastic beakers with water, one with cold tap water, and one warm water (approximately 45
C) from the hot water faucet. Fill the larger container with room temperature water (approx. 25 C).
2.) Place your left hand in the cold water and the right hand in the warm water. Wait 1 minute.
3.) Place both hands in the larger container filled with room temperature water and then fill out the
responses below.
Left hand estimate of water temperature ______
Right hand estimate of water temperature ______
Actual temperature of cold water ______
Actual temperature of warm water ______

1.) What are the consequences of sensory adaptation? Can it be permanent? Why or why not?
2.) What do you think would happen if you followed steps 1 and 2 above and then waited 5, 10, or 15
minutes before placing your hands in the room temperature water?

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EXPERIMENT 6: Adaptation to mechanical (proprioceptive) stimulus.

The experiments above focused on detecting external mechanical or thermal stimuli.

Mechanosensory systems also detect how our bodies are configured. This ability to ascertain our
body configuration is called proprioception and provides sensory information that is crucial in posture
control, locomotion, manipulation and dextrous hand control. Proprioceptors in skeletal muscles
provide information about the effort exerted by various movement tasks such as grasping, walking or
dancing. Thus, in contrast to the above experiments, proprioception is a measure of internal
mechanical forces and positions, as opposed to external stimuli. Our brain integrates information from
proprioceptors and from our vestibular system (the inner ear) to control body movements.
Proprioception is used in a standard field sobriety test to check for alcohol intoxication. In that test, the
subject is required to touch his or her nose with eyes closed. People with normal proprioception may
make an error of no more than 20 mm. People with alcohol impairment fail this test due to difficulty
with proprioception.


With your eyes closed, place your index finger at the center of the tip of your nose. Have your lab
partner measure the error. Repeat this three times for each hand.

Right hand
Distance (mm) _____ ______ _____

Average distance (mm) ______

Left hand
Distance (mm) _____ ______ _____

Average distance (mm) ______

1.) Which hand is dominant for you?
2.) Does hand dominance determine precision of proprioception?


Joint position matching (JPM) is an established protocol for measuring proprioception, and joint
position sense specifically, without the aid of visual or vestibular information. During such tasks,
individuals are blindfolded while a joint is moved to a specific angle for a given period of time, returned
to neutral, and the subjects are asked to replicate the specified angle. Measured by constant and
absolute errors, ability to accurately identify joint angles over a series of conditions is the most
accurate means of determining proprioceptive acuity in isolation to date. Recent investigations have
shown that hand dominance, participant age, and presentation time of the angle can all affect

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performance on joint position matching tasks. Joint position matching has been used in clinical
settings in both the upper and lower extremities.

Keep your eyes closed throughout the whole experiment.

1.) With your body in a relaxed state, have your lab partner position a joint at an angle.
2.) Have your lab partner measure that angle and then return your joint to its initial state.
3.) Repeat this three times, filling out the table below.

TABLE 5 Joint____________________

Trial Positioned angle Returned angle

(degrees) (degrees)

Calculate the mean difference between the Positioned angle and Returned angle _________

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