A touching story? How touch can trigger emotion

Scientists have described how light, gentle touch conveys events to our brain that are pleasant or rewarding.

The triggering of our nerve impulses in our skin has numerous functions- it can tell us if we’re in danger or pain, and helps guide our movement. However there is a clear difference in the emotions experienced as a result of touch between, for example, holding someone’s hand and picking up an inanimate object.

Nerves that respond to gentle touch are known as c-tactile afferents (CTs). In contrast to the nerves that detect pain, Professor Francis McGlone and her team from Liverpool John Moores University describe how these nerves give a feeling of well-being in response to a stimulus such as an affectionate stroke or pat on the back.

Although the significance of this response is yet to be determined, research is discovering that the CT system fails in people who suffer from autism, resulting in either a lack of social empathy or even distress. Professor McGlone also describes how CT stimulation during childhood could shape our behaviour and psychology later in life. Further research may aid in the development of new therapies for autistic individuals or those who experienced a lack of nurture as children.

DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2014.05.001

Written by Joanna-Marie Howes.

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