Neural Coding in the Somatosensory Pathway

Morning Tutorial (Maestro B, 9:00-12:00)

The materials for this tutorial are available upon request. Please contact Qi Wang for details.

The transformation of sensory signals into spatiotemporal patterns of neural activity in the brain is critical in forming our perception of external world. Tactile signals, such as skin deformation, are transduced to neural electrical impulses, or spikes, by mechanoreceptors embedded in the fingerpad skin, and these spikes are subsequently transmitted to the brain through various stages of the somatosensory pathway, ultimately forming the representation of sensory world. In this tutorial, we will review the coding properties of the spike trains recorded from sensory neurons, and information theoretic tools that are popularly used to analyze the spike trains. The intention of the tutorial is to expose haptics engineers to some basic ideas about neural processes underlying tactile perception. It is our hope that this tutorial will inspire engineers to design better haptic devices by taking advantage of understanding of sensory processing in the brain.


  • Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who are interested in neural basis of tactile perception.


  • Introduction to the biophysics of neurons and mechanoreceptors
    Qi Wang, Columbia University
  • Coding properties of neurons in the primary somatosensory cortex of primates and their implications to neuroprosthetics
    Sliman Bensmaia, University of Chicago


Qi Wang   Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Columbia University

Qi Wang received his first Ph.D. in Robotics from Harbin Institute of Technology, China, and the second Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from McGill University, Canada, in 1998 and 2007, respectively. He received postdoctoral training in Neuroscience at Harvard University from 2006 to 2008. Prior to joining the faculty at Columbia University in January 2013, he held a research faculty position in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University. His research interests include neural coding, sensory processing in the brain, brain-machine interfaces, and biomedical instrumentation.

Sliman Bensmaia   Associate Professor, Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, University of Chicago

Dr. Sliman Bensmaia received a B.A. in Cognitive Science from the University of Virginia in 1995, and a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in 2003, under the tutelage of Dr. Mark Hollins. He then joined the lab of Dr. Kenneth Johnson, at the Johns Hopkins University Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, as a postdoctoral fellow until 2006, at which time he was promoted to Associate Research Scientist. In 2009, Dr. Bensmaia joined the faculty as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago, where he is also a member of the Committees on Neurobiology and on Computational Neuroscience. The main objectives of Bensmaia's lab are to discover the neural basis of somatosensory perception using psychophysics, neurophysiology, and computational modeling. Bensmaia also seeks to apply insights from basic science to develop approaches to convey sensory feedback in upper-limb neuroprostheses.