Wired for social touch: the sense that binds us to others

Manon Bohic, Victoria E. Abraira

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


The somatosensory system decodes a wide range of tactile stimuli, from touch to itch and pain, with considerable overlap and crosstalk between the pathways that relay each of those modalities. However, the most emotionally rewarding tactile sensation is that evoked by social touch: a sensation that we have missed dearly during this ongoing pandemic due to forced social isolation. How do sensory neurons detect and help us interpret the richness of social touch? What are the major skin highways for social touch and how do they shape our perception of social interactions? Here we describe the anatomical and physiological characteristics of rodent touch sensory neurons (Low Threshold Mechanoreceptors, LTMRs) and their associated spinal cord circuits responsible for translating mechanical stimuli of the skin into the neural codes of social touch perception. We propose that C-LTMRs, Aδ-LTMRs and Aβ-LTMRs represent a family of social touch mechanoreceptors, each fine tuned to detect subtle aspects of social touch interactions. Together these LTMR ensembles are the substrate of the rich world of sensations that arise from social touch. We outline the five layers of complexity that characterize each LTMR: physiological properties, peripheral terminal ending anatomy, receptive field, conduction velocities, and spinal projections. Such characteristics ensure that, although LTMR signals can converge onto common spinal interneurons, their unique temporal and physiological patterns of activation will imprint a wide variety of touch signals onto spinal networks. We also suggest a model for top-down control of spinal sensory processing where neuromodulators can finely tune the gain or the sensitivity of local spinal neurons to incoming peripheral touch information, affecting the intensity and/or the valence of the final touch representation sent to the brain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)207-215
Number of pages9
JournalCurrent Opinion in Behavioral Sciences
StatePublished - Feb 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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