People are good at telling the direction of a moving tactile stimulus and this capacity provides a sensitive clinical test of somatosensory disturbances. Tactile directional sensitivity depends on two different kinds of somatosensory information, i.e. spatiotemporal information and information about friction-induced changes in skin stretch. The objective of this study was to compare the relative contribution to postural control of these two types of information for both glabrous and hairy skin. Postural sway amplitudes and sway paths were recorded, with or without access to tactile and/or visual stabilizing stimuli. Subjects were standing on two types of surface, either solid metal or 50 mm foam plastic. Two types of stimulus were used to generate sway-related tactile information. One was a thin air-stream that was used to assess the contribution by spatiotemporal information, and the second was a narrow steel rod that was glued to the skin to assess the contribution by skin-stretch information. The stimuli were applied to the hairy skin of the forearm and to the glabrous skin of the fingertip. In addition, we studied the ability to tell the direction of movement of an air-stream stimulus on glabrous and hairy skin. The air-stream caused significant sway reductions when applied to glabrous, but not hairy skin. The weak effect on hairy skin reflected the perceptually poor directional sensitivity for the air-stream stimulus in this cutaneous area. In contrast, the glued rod reduced sway when applied to both glabrous and hairy skin reflecting the tactile afferents' high sensitivity to skin stretch in these areas. Both types of tactile stimulus reduced sway amplitudes more than sway paths for both hairy and glabrous skin. The visual cue, on the other hand, tended to reduce sway paths more than amplitudes. The two types of tactile receptive surface seem to influence postural control in the same manner, despite anatomical and physiological differences. The results invite speculation that patients with poor directional sensitivity might have reduced postural stability compared with healthy individuals.
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