Transfer of adaptation reveals shared mechanism in grasping and manual estimation

Publication date: August 2018
Source:Neuropsychologia, Volume 117
Author(s): Evan Cesanek, Fulvio Domini
An influential idea in cognitive neuroscience is that perception and action are highly separable brain functions, implemented in distinct neural systems. In particular, this theory predicts that the functional distinction between grasping, a skilled action, and manual estimation, a type of perceptual report, should be mirrored by a split between their respective control systems. This idea has received support from a variety of dissociations, yet many of these findings have been criticized for failing to pinpoint the source of the dissociation. In this study, we devised a novel approach to this question, first targeting specific grasp control mechanisms through visuomotor adaptation, then testing whether adapted mechanisms were also involved in manual estimation – a response widely characterized as perceptual in function. Participants grasped objects in virtual reality that could appear larger or smaller than the actual physical sizes felt at the end of each grasp. After brief exposure to a size perturbation, manual estimates were biased in the same direction as the maximum grip apertures of grasping movements, indicating that the adapted mechanism is active in both tasks, regardless of the perception-action distinction. Additional experiments showed that the transfer effect generalizes broadly over space (Exp. 1B) and does not appear to arise from a change in visual perception (Exp. 2). We discuss two adaptable mechanisms that could have mediated the observed effect: (a) an afferent proprioceptive mechanism for sensing grip shape; and (b) an efferent visuomotor transformation of size information into a grip-shaping motor command.