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Touching and feeling: differences in pleasant touch processing between glabrous and hairy skin in humans


F. McGlone, as above.


Previous functional magnetic resonance imaging studies in two rare patients, together with microneurography and psychophysical observations in healthy subjects, have demonstrated a system of mechanosensitive C-fiber tactile (CT) afferents sensitive to slowly moving stimuli. They project to the posterior insular cortex and signal pleasant aspects of touch. Importantly, CTs have not been found in the glabrous skin of the hand, yet it is commonly observed that glabrous skin touch is also perceived as pleasant. Here we asked if the brain processing of pleasant touch differs between hairy and glabrous skin by stroking the forearm and glabrous skin of the hand during positron emission tomography. The data showed that, when contrasting slow brush stroking on the forearm with slow brush stroking on the palm, there were significant activations of the posterior insular cortex and mid-anterior orbitofrontal cortex. The opposite contrast showed a significant activation of the somatosensory cortices. Although concurrent psychophysical ratings showed no differences in intensity or pleasantness ratings, a subsequent touch questionnaire in which subjects used a newly developed ‘touch perception task’ showed significant difference for the two body sites. Emotional descriptors received higher ratings on the forearm and sensory descriptors were rated more highly on the palm. The present findings are consistent with the hypothesis that pleasant touch from hairy skin, mediated by CT afferents, is processed in the limbic-related cortex and represents an innate non-learned process. In contrast, pleasant touch from glabrous skin, mediated by A-beta afferents, is processed in the somatosensory cortex and represents an analytical process dependent on previous tactile experiences.