Researchers at The University of Nottingham are using sophisticated MRI technology to provide a fascinating insight into the brain mechanisms involved in the human sense of touch.
The three-year study, funded with £690,000 from the Medical Research Council, will reveal the cortical processing of the sense of touch at an unprecedented level of resolution. The researchers predict their project will provide new insights into the sense of touch and, in particular, why nerve pathways are altered in patients suffering from some types of neurological disorders.
The work is being led by Dr Sue Francis in the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, an expert in developing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques for biomedical research applications.
Mapping touch in the brain
She said: “In the human brain there is a strip of cortex which is responsible for processing sensory information from the body e.g. touch, pain, temperature called the somatosensory cortex, and a large part of this ‘strip’ is allocated specifically to the hands. Neuroscientists have only recently started to form detailed maps in individual subjects of the areas responsible for sensing touch from individual fingers — an essential first step in providing a deeper understanding of how we feel.”
The Nottingham scientists, which also include psychologists and a clinical neurologist from Nottingham University Hospitals Trust, will be teaming up with neuroscience and neurophysiology experts including Professor Francis McGlone from Liverpool John Moores University, and researchers at Aix-Marseilles Université in France and Sweden’s University of Gothenburg to conduct the work.
Impact on neurological disorders
The project will map the cortical representation of the digits to corresponding areas of the somatosensory cortex in response to mechanical stimulation and, for the first time, bespoke patterns of single nerve fibre electrical stimulation, during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
This data will then be used to compare how somatosensory processing differs in patients with neurological disorders such as dystonia, which causes spasms and contractions in the hands, and carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful condition which is caused by the compression of a major nerve as it passes over the carpal bones in the wrist.
In particular, they are keen to discover why some treatments for these conditions, such as botulinum injections, become ineffective and whether this is caused by the brain re-organising pathways responsible for touch sensation.
Powerful 7T images
The Nottingham academics will use a powerful 7 Tesla MRI scanner to look at somatosensory functionality across the six different layers of cortical grey matter in the region responsible for touch and how these could be impaired. They will be linking up with experts at Gothenburg University who have pioneered a technique which can produce the perception of very localized touch in response to electrical stimulation of an individual touch nerve fibre which will allow them to examine the activity of the brain in healthy subjects in order to develop a detailed picture of which areas of the brain ‘light up.’
They will be recording the electrical signatures given out by individual touch nerves and feeding those tailored signatures back to the nerves, using in-house designed MR-compatible microstimulation equipment. By ‘playing back’ to a touch nerve these natural electrical patterns it is hoped to tap into the perceptual language of touch by ‘talking’ to the brain in its own language.
Dr Francis added: “If we can understand in greater detail how we perceive the sense of touch then this knowledge may be of great value to the design of ‘sensing’ neuroprosthetic limbs.”
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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Research Project of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2014. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK by research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for three years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.
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