Fingerprints Filter Vibrations: Ridges May Help Make Touch Sensation Efficient

By Sanders, Laura | Science News, February 28, 2009 | Go to article overview

Fingerprints Filter Vibrations: Ridges May Help Make Touch Sensation Efficient


Sanders, Laura, Science News


The intricate patterns of swirls on human fingers may do more than help cops nab crooks. A study in the January 30 issue of Science helps crack the case of fingerprints' real job: Epidermal ridges, fingerprints' professional name, likely serve as filters to help in the efficient detection of fine textures.

"The functional role of fingerprints has remained something of a mystery," says Sliman Bensmaia of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But the new results show that "fingerprints enhance our ability to perceive surface texture."

When a finger sweeps over a finely textured surface, such as a cotton sleeve or a wooden table, the interaction sends a large range of vibrations into the skin. Specialized sensors called Pacinian fibers, the tips of nerve fibers, detect only a select few of the vibrations--those right around 250 hertz--before sending the signal to the brain. Other receptors in the finger detect different frequencies.

To study the details of touch, a group of physicists led by Georges Debregeas at the CNRS Ecole Normale Superieure research center in Paris took a robotics approach. The researchers developed biomimetic sensors to detect vibrations similar to those created when fingers move over a fine texture. Elastic caps that mimicked human fingertip skin covered the sensors. One fake tip had ridges similar in size and distribution to human fingerprints, and another was smooth. …

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