Reduced C-afferent fibre density affects perceived pleasantness and empathy for touch.
Morrison I., Löken LS., Minde J., Wessberg J., Perini I., Nennesmo I., Olausson H.
We examined patients with a heritable disorder associated with a mutation affecting the nerve growth factor beta gene. Their condition has been classified as hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathy type V. Carriers of the mutation show a reduction in density of thin and unmyelinated nerve fibres, including C afferents. A distinct type of unmyelinated, low-threshold mechanoreceptive C fibre, the C-tactile afferent, is present in hairy but not glabrous skin of humans and other mammals. They have been implicated in the coding of pleasant, hedonic touch of the kind that occurs in affiliative social interactions. We addressed the relationship between C fibre function and pleasant touch perception in 10 individuals from a unique population of mutation carriers in Sweden. We also investigated the effect of reduced C-fibre density on patients' evaluation of observed interpersonal touch (empathy). Results showed that patients perceived gentle, slow arm stroking, optimal for eliciting C-tactile afferent responses (1-10 cm/s), as less pleasant than did matched controls and also differed in their rating patterns across stimulation velocities. Further, patients' blood-oxygen-level-dependent responses in posterior insular cortex--a target for C afferents--were not modulated by stimulation optimal for activating C-tactile afferents. Hence, perception of the hedonic aspect of dynamic touch likely depends on C-tactile afferent density. Closely similar patterns between individuals' ratings of felt and seen touch suggest that appraisal of others' touch is anchored in one's own perceptual experience, whether typical or atypical.