Tactile Spatial Acuity in Childhood: Effects of Age and Fingertip Size
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Tactile acuity is known to decline with age in adults, possibly as the result of receptor loss, but less is understood about how tactile acuity changes during childhood. Previous research from our laboratory has shown that fingertip size influences tactile spatial acuity in young adults: those with larger fingers tend to have poorer acuity, possibly because mechanoreceptors are more sparsely distributed in larger fingers. We hypothesized that a similar relationship would hold among children. If so, children's tactile spatial acuity might be expected to worsen as their fingertips grow. However, concomitant CNS maturation might result in more efficient perceptual processing, counteracting the effect of fingertip growth on tactile acuity. To investigate, we conducted a cross-sectional study, testing 116 participants ranging in age from 6 to 16 years on a precision-controlled tactile grating orientation task. We measured each participant's grating orientation threshold on the dominant index finger, along with physical properties of the fingertip: surface area, volume, sweat pore spacing, and temperature. We found that, as in adults, children with larger fingertips (at a given age) had significantly poorer acuity, yet paradoxically acuity did not worsen significantly with age. We propose that finger growth during development results in a gradual decline in innervation density as receptive fields reposition to cover an expanding skin surface. At the same time, central maturation presumably enhances perceptual processing.