Can you tickle yourself?

As I said before, with so many science outlets out there, it’s hard to find something new and interesting to cover that hasn’t been covered already. Admittedly, sometimes some new paper comes out that is so funny or interesting that I too fall in line with the rest of them and cover it. But, most of the time, I try to bring you something that you won’t find it reported by other science journalists. So, I’m sacrificing the novelty for originality by choosing something from my absolutely huge article folder (about 20 000 papers).

And here is the gem for today, titled enticingly “Why can’t you tickle yourself?”. Blakemore, Wolpert & Frith (2000) review several papers on the subject, including some of their own, and arrive to the conclusion that the reason you can’t tickle yourself is because you expect it. Let me explain: when you do a movement that results in a sensation, you have a pretty accurate expectation of how that’s going to feel. This expectation then dampens the sensation, a process probably evolved to let you focus on more relevant things in the environment that on what you’re doing o yourself (don’t let your mind go all dirty now, ok?).

Mechanistically speaking, it goes like this: when you move your arm to tickle your foot, a copy of the motor command you gave to the arm (the authors call this “efference copy”) goes to a ‘predictor’ region of the brain (the authors believe this is the cerebellum) that generates an expectation (See Fig. 1). Once the movement has been completed, the actual sensation is compared to the expected one. If there is a discrepancy, you get tickled, if not, not so much. But, you might say, even when someone else is going to tickle me I have a pretty good idea what to expect, so where’s the discrepancy? Why do I still get tickled when I expect it? Because you can’t fool your brain that easily. The brain then says; “Alright, alright, we expect tickling. But do tell me this, where is that motor command? Hm? I didn’t get any!” So here is your discrepancy: when someone tickles you, there is the sensation, but no motor command, signals 1 and 2 from the diagram are missing.

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Fig. 1. My take on the tickling mechanism after Blakemore, Wolpert & Frith (2000). Credits. Picture: Sobotta 1909, Diagram: Neuronicus 2016. Data: Blakemore, Wolpert & Frith (2002). Overall: Public Domain

Likewise, when someone tickles you with your own hand, there is an attenuation of sensation, but is not completely disappeared, because there is some registration in the brain regarding the movement of your own arm, even if it was not a motor command initiated by you. So you get tickled just a little bit. The brain is no fool: is aware of who had done what and with whose hands (your dirty mind thought that, I didn’t say it!) .

This mechanism of comparing sensation with movement of self and others appears to be impaired in schizophrenia. So when these patients say that “I hear some voices and I can’t shut them up” or ” My hand moved of its own accord, I had no control over it”, it may be that they are not aware of initiating those movements, the self-monitoring mechanism is all wacky. Supporting this hypothesis, the authors conducted an fMRI experiment (Reference 2) where they showed that that the somatosensory and the anterior cingulate cortices show reduced activation when attempting to self-tickle as opposed to being tickled by the experimenter (please, stop that line of thinking…). Correspondingly, the behavioral portion of the experiment showed that the schizophrenics can tickle themselves. Go figure!

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Reference 1: Blakemore SJ, Wolpert D, & Frith C (3 Aug 2000). Why can’t you tickle yourself? Neuroreport, 11(11):R11-6. PMID: 10943682. ARTICLE FULLTEXT

Reference 2: Blakemore SJ, Smith J, Steel R, Johnstone CE, & Frith CD (Sep 2000, Epub 17 October 2000). The perception of self-produced sensory stimuli in patients with auditory hallucinations and passivity experiences: evidence for a breakdown in self-monitoring. Psychological Medicine, 30(5):1131-1139. PMID: 12027049. ARTICLE

By Neuronicus, 7 August 2016

The runner’s euphoria and opioids

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The runner’s high is most likely due to release of the endorphins binding to the opioid receptors according to Boecker et al. (2008, doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhn013). Image courtesy of Pixabay.

We all know that exercise is good for you: it keeps you fit, it reduces stress and improves your mood. And also, sometimes, particularly after endurance running, it gets you high. The mechanism of euphoria reported by some runners after resistance training is unknown. Here is a nice paper trying to figure it out.

Boecker et al. (2008) scanned 10 trained male athletes at rest and after 2 hour worth of endurance running. By “trained athletes” they mean people that ran for 4-10 hours weekly for the past 2 years. The scanning was done using a positron emission tomograph (PET). The PET looks for a particular chemical that has been injected into the bloodstream of the subjects, in this case non-selective opioidergic ligand (it binds to all opioid receptors in the brain; morphine, for example, binds only to a subclass of the opioid receptors).

The rationale is as follows: if we see an increase in ligand binding, then the receptors were free, unoccupied, showing a reduction in the endogenous neurotransmitter, that is the substance that the brain produces for those receptors; if we see a decrease in the ligand binding it was because the receptors were occupied, meaning that there was an increase in the production of the endogenous neurotransmitter. The endogenous neurotransmitters for the opioid receptors are the endorphins (don’t confuse them with epinephrine a.k.a. adrenaline; different systems entirely).

After running, the subjects reported that they are euphoric and happy, but no change in other feelings (confusion, anger, sadness, fear etc.; there was a reduction in fear, but it was not significant). The scanning showed that it was less binding of the opioidergic ligand in many places in the brain (for the specialist, here you go: prefrontal/orbitofrontal cortices, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior and posterior cingulate cortex, insula and parahippocampal gyrus, sensorimotor/parietal regions, cerebellum and basal ganglia).

Regression analysis showed that there was a link between the euphoria feeling and the receptor occupancy: the more euphoric the people said they were, the more endorphines (i.e. endogenous opioids) they had bound in the brain. This study is the first to show this kind of link.

Reference: Boecker H, Sprenger T, Spilker ME, Henriksen G, Koppenhoefer M, Wagner KJ, Valet M, Berthele A, & Tolle TR. (Nov 2008, Epub 21 Feb 2008). The Runner’s High: Opioidergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain. Cerebral Cortex, 18:2523–2531. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhn013. Article | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 28 November 2015

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