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The neuroscience of grasping

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 01 October 2005

Key Points

  • Considerable advances in our knowledge of human and non-human primate grasping control have been made during the past decade, using a combination of behavioural, neuroimaging and electrophysiological approaches. As a result, the neural circuitry and mechanisms of grasping are being elucidated. However, few attempts have been made to reconcile findings across species.

  • Various experiments using kinematic techniques indicate that the mechanics of grasping in humans vary depending on object attributes such as fragility, size, shape, texture and weight. By contrast, kinematic studies in monkeys have been limited and confined to the testing of an object's size and shape.

  • Single-unit physiology studies indicate that grasping might be represented by neurons in a network of brain areas, including the motor, premotor and parietal cortices. Because these areas contain representations of hand actions and the structures of objects, it has been suggested that their integrity might be crucial for successful grasping.

  • Findings from patients with brain damage who have difficulty in grasping objects are difficult to reconcile with neurophysiological findings, as the patients' lesions are confined to regions that, in monkeys, do not seem to be involved in grasping-related visuomotor transformations.

  • Recent positron emission tomography and functional MRI studies in humans have indicated possible human homologues of the brain regions that seem to be involved in grasping in monkeys. However, because of the difficulty of studying real grasping in the neuroimaging environment, many laboratories have taken to studying rather unnatural tasks. So, there are inconsistencies in the experimental protocols that make these results difficult to compare and interpret.

  • One consistent region that has been identified as being involved in grasping tasks is the human homologue of the monkey anterior intraparietal area. However, in most of the studies that show such activation, participants were constrained to a single type of grasp (a precision grip), which raises the question of whether different grasping patterns are represented in this area.

  • Contextual information that is involved in the unfolding of the grasping action (for example, using the same object for different purposes) has been largely neglected. A fundamental step is to uncover whether and to what extent contextual factors affect movement organization in humans and monkeys.

  • To make progress in this field, it would be useful to implement a coordinated series of experiments in which similar protocols are applied to monkeys and humans, using various techniques. This multi-pronged approach should ideally combine functional imaging with MRI-compatible electrophysiological and kinematic recordings.

Abstract

People have always been fascinated by the exquisite precision and flexibility of the human hand. When hand meets object, we confront the overlapping worlds of sensorimotor and cognitive functions. We reach for objects, grasp and lift them, manipulate them and use them to act on other objects. This review examines one of these actions — grasping. Recent research in behavioural neuroscience, neuroimaging and electrophysiology has the potential to reveal where in the brain the process of grasping is organized, but has yet to address several questions about the sensorimotor transformations that relate to the control of the hands.

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Figure 1: Examples of different grasps.
Figure 2: Kinematics of grasping.
Figure 3: Comparison of the kinematics of grasping in monkeys and humans: effect of size.
Figure 4: Comparison between neural circuits for grasping in macaque monkeys and humans.
Figure 5: Types of neuron in monkey anterior intraparietal area and F5 that are involved in hand manipulation.
Figure 6: Grip aperture profiles of patients with brain damage.
Figure 7: Setups and results from two functional MRI grasping experiments.

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to A. Allport, J. Culham, S. Glover, J. Grezes, P. Haggard, S. Petrucco, M. Santello and R. Tirindelli for comments and stimulating discussions, and to A. Pierno and D. Varotto for their help with the figures. I apologize to those whose work I failed to cite because of the limited scope of the review. Work from my laboratory has been supported by the Leverhulme Trust (UK), MIUR (Ministero dell'Istruzione, dell'Università e della Ricerca), the National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia), the Royal Society (UK) and the Wellcome Trust (UK).

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Glossary

PRECISION GRIP

Precision grip is characterized by opposition of the thumb to one or more of the other fingers.

POWER GRIP

In power grip, the fingers are flexed to form a clamp against the palm.

KINEMATICS

Kinematics consider movement in terms of position and displacement (angular and linear) of body segments, centre of gravity, and acceleration and velocities of the whole body or segments of the body.

MOTOR VOCABULARY

The motor vocabulary comprises 'words', each of which is represented by a population of F5 neurons. These words select specific 'motor prototypes', such as the configuration of fingers that is necessary for the precision grasp.

REGIONS OF INTEREST

(ROI). A type of neuroimaging analysis in which specific areas rather than the entire brain are targeted and analysed.

MULTI-ELECTRODE TECHNIQUES

Allows the insertion of several glass-insulated platinum electrodes (diameter 80 μm) into the cortex in a 4-by-4 grid with an inter-electrode spacing of only 300 μm. Each electrode can be independently positioned.

DIFFUSION TENSOR IMAGING

(DTI). This method can provide quantitative information with which to visualize and study connectivity and continuity of neural pathways in the central and peripheral nervous systems in vivo.

TRANSCRANIAL MAGNETIC STIMULATION

(TMS). TMS involves creating a strong localized transient magnetic field that induces current flow in underlying neural tissue, causing a temporary disruption of activity in small regions of the brain.

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Castiello, U. The neuroscience of grasping. Nat Rev Neurosci 6, 726–736 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1744

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