Friday, February 15, 2019

How brain and spinal cord distinguish self touch from the touch of others

I’ve always been struck by how much more effective someone else’s touch is than my own in relaxing tense muscles in my body. Boehme et al. show a neural basis for how we distinguish our self touch from that of others:
Differentiation between self-produced tactile stimuli and touch by others is necessary for social interactions and for a coherent concept of “self.” The mechanisms underlying this distinction are unknown. Here, we investigated the distinction between self- and other-produced light touch in healthy volunteers using three different approaches: fMRI, behavioral testing, and somatosensory-evoked potentials (SEPs) at spinal and cortical levels. Using fMRI, we found self–other differentiation in somatosensory and sociocognitive areas. Other-touch was related to activation in several areas, including somatosensory cortex, insula, superior temporal gyrus, supramarginal gyrus, striatum, amygdala, cerebellum, and prefrontal cortex. During self-touch, we instead found deactivation in insula, anterior cingulate cortex, superior temporal gyrus, amygdala, parahippocampal gyrus, and prefrontal areas. Deactivation extended into brain areas encoding low-level sensory representations, including thalamus and brainstem. These findings were replicated in a second cohort. During self-touch, the sensorimotor cortex was functionally connected to the insula, and the threshold for detection of an additional tactile stimulus was elevated. Differential encoding of self- vs. other-touch during fMRI correlated with the individual self-concept strength. In SEP, cortical amplitudes were reduced during self-touch, while latencies at cortical and spinal levels were faster for other-touch. We thus demonstrated a robust self–other distinction in brain areas related to somatosensory, social cognitive, and interoceptive processing. Signs of this distinction were evident at the spinal cord. Our results provide a framework for future studies in autism, schizophrenia, and emotionally unstable personality disorder, conditions where symptoms include social touch avoidance and poor self-vs.-other discrimination.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting piece on touch in Chinese culture:

    Not directly on topic, but worth reading.