Blocking tactile input to one finger using anaesthetic enhances touch perception and learning in other fingers.

Brain plasticity is a key mechanism for learning and recovery. A striking example of plasticity in the adult brain occurs following input loss, for example, following amputation, whereby the deprived zone is “invaded” by new representations. Although it has long been assumed that such reorganization leads to functional benefits for the invading representation, the behavioral evidence is controversial. Here, we investigate whether a temporary period of somatosensory input loss to one finger, induced by anesthetic block, is sufficient to cause improvements in touch perception (“direct” effects of deafferentation). Further, we determine whether this deprivation can improve touch perception by enhancing sensory learning processes, for example, by training (“interactive” effects). Importantly, we explore whether direct and interactive effects of deprivation are dissociable by directly comparing their effects on touch perception. Using psychophysical thresholds, we found brief deprivation alone caused improvements in tactile perception of a finger adjacent to the blocked finger but not to non-neighboring fingers. Two additional groups underwent minimal tactile training to one finger either during anesthetic block of the neighboring finger or a sham block with saline. Deprivation significantly enhanced the effects of tactile perceptual training, causing greater learning transfer compared with sham block. That is, following deafferentation and training, learning gains were seen in fingers normally outside the boundaries of topographic transfer of tactile perceptual learning. Our results demonstrate that sensory deprivation can improve perceptual abilities, both directly and interactively, when combined with sensory learning. This dissociation provides novel opportunities for future clinical interventions to improve sensation. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)