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An fMRI study on cortical responses during active self-touch and passive touch from others

Journal article
Authors Rochelle Ackerley
E. Hassan
A. Curran
Johan Wessberg
Håkan Olausson
F. McGlone
Published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience
Volume 6
ISSN 1662-5153
Publication year 2012
Published at Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology, Department of Physiology
Language en
Keywords glabrous, hairy, motor, sensorimotor, skin, somatosensory, stroking, primary somatosensory cortex, unmyelinated tactile afferents, median, nerve-stimulation, bold signal changes, hairy skin, rhesus-monkey, discharge properties, discrimination task, insular cortex, motor cortex
Subject categories Neurology


Active, self-touch and the passive touch from an external source engage comparable afferent mechanoreceptors on the touched skin site. However, touch directed to glabrous skin compared to hairy skin will activate different types of afferent mechanoreceptors. Despite perceptual similarities between touch to different body sites, it is likely that the touch information is processed differently. In the present study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to elucidate the cortical differences in the neural signal of touch representations during active, self-touch and passive touch from another, to both glabrous (plam) and hairy (arm) skin, where a soft brush was used as the stimulus. There were two active touch conditions, where the participant used the brush in their right hand to stroke either their left palm or arm. There were two similar passive, touch conditions where the experimenter used an identical brush to stroke the same palm and arm areas on the participant. Touch on the left palm elicited a large, significant, positive blood-oxygenation level dependence (BOLD) signal in right sensorimotor areas. Less extensive activity was found for touch to the arm. Separate somatotopical palm and arm representations were found in Brodmann area (BA) 3 of the right primary somatosensory cortex (SI) and in both these areas, active stroking gave significantly higher signals than passive stroking. Active, self-touch elicited a positive BOLD signal in a network of sensorimotor cortical areas in the left hemisphere, compared to the resting baseline. In contrast, during passive touch, a significant negative BOLD signal was found in the left SI. Thus, each of the four conditions had a unique cortical signature despite similarities in afferent signaling or evoked perception. It is hypothesized that attentional mechanisms play a role in the modulation of the touch signal in the right SI, accounting for the differences found between active and passive touch.

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