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surface discrimination

Ashkan Vaziri's picture

Flexible Probes for Characterizing Surface Topology: From Biology to Technology

In nature, several species use flexible probes to actively explore their environment, and acquire important sensory information, such as surface topology and texture, water/air flow velocity, etc. For example, rats and other rodents have an array of facial vibrissae (or whiskers) with which they gather tactile information about the external world.  The complex mechanisms, by which mechanical deformations of the probe lead to neuronal activity in the animal’s nervous system are still far from being understood. This is due to the intricacy of the deformation mechanics of the flexible sensors, the processes responsible for transforming the deformation to electrical activity, and the subsequent representation of the sensory information by the nervous system. Understanding how these mechanosensory signals are transduced and extracted by the nervous system promises great insight into biological function, and has novel technological applications. To understand the mechanical aspect of sensory transduction, here we monitored the deformation of a rat’s vibrissa as it strikes rigid objects with different topologies (surface features) during locomotion, using high-speed videography. Motivated by our observations, we developed detailed numerical models to study the mechanics of such flexible probes. Our findings elucidate how active sensation with vibrissae might provide sensory information and in addition have direct implications in several technological areas. To put this in perspective, we propose strategies in which flexible probes can be used to characterize surface topology at high speeds, which is a desirable feature in several technological applications such as memory storage and retrieval. (The full article is attached)

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