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Observing touch activates human primary somatosensory cortex

Authors

  • Elina Pihko,

    1. Brain Research Unit, Low Temperature Laboratory, Aalto University School of Science and Technology, 00076 AALTO, Espoo, Finland
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  • Cathy Nangini,

    1. Brain Research Unit, Low Temperature Laboratory, Aalto University School of Science and Technology, 00076 AALTO, Espoo, Finland
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  • Veikko Jousmäki,

    1. Brain Research Unit, Low Temperature Laboratory, Aalto University School of Science and Technology, 00076 AALTO, Espoo, Finland
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  • Riitta Hari

    1. Brain Research Unit, Low Temperature Laboratory, Aalto University School of Science and Technology, 00076 AALTO, Espoo, Finland
    2. Department of Clinical Neurophysiology, Helsinki University Central Hospital, 00290 Helsinki, Finland
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Dr Elina Pihko, as above.
E-mail: pihko@neuro.hut.fi

Abstract

We used magnetoencephalography to show that the human primary somatosensory (SI) cortex is activated by mere observation of touch. Somatosensory evoked fields were measured from adult human subjects in two conditions. First, the experimenter touched the subject’s right hand with her index finger (Experienced touch). In the second condition, the experimenter touched her own hand in a similar manner (Observed touch). Minimum current estimates were computed across three consecutive 300-ms time windows (0–300, 300–600 and 600–900 ms) with respect to touch onset. During ‘Experienced touch’, as expected, the contralateral (left) SI cortex was strongly activated in the 0–300 ms time window. In the same time window, statistically significant activity also occurred in the ipsilateral SI, although it was only 2.5% of the strength of the contralateral activation; the ipsilateral activation continued in the 300–600 ms time window. During ‘Observed touch’, the left SI cortex was activated during the 300–600 ms interval; the activation strength was 7.5% of that during the significantly activated period (0–300 ms) of ‘Experienced touch’. The results suggest that when people observe somebody else being touched, activation of their own somatosensory circuitry may contribute to understanding of the other person’s somatosensory experience.

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