Ticklishness is something we all grow up with, but as common as it is to the human experience, scientists still don’t know much about it.
A new study using rodents appears to shed some light on ticklishness, determining where the involuntary reaction is located in the brain.
Published in the journal Science, the new study looked at rats, which scientists know take pleasure in being tickled. The study team placed electrodes into in the region of the rats’ brains that processes touch, known as the somatosensory cortex, and then tickled them.
Squeaking with delight
The researchers noted that the rats appeared to giggle hysterically in a series of rapid-fire, ultrasonic squeaks. Previous study revealed rats naturally produce those sounds during animated social situations, like when they are play-tussling other rats.
After tickling the rats, researchers then mock-tickled their subjects, playfully waving a hand around in the rodents’ enclosure. Rather than pulling away, the rats wanted more contact. The team also saw neurons fire in the somatosensory cortex, despite the rats not being touched. This indicated to him that expectation of tickling could induce the area of the brain that reacts to touch, even without physical contact.
Finally, the researchers stimulated the somatosensory cortex directly via an electrical signal straight into the brain. The rats squeaked the in an identical way, indicating that this area truly is the tickling center of a rat’s brain.
That finding revealed the function of the somatosensory area of the brain seems to be more intricate than initially thought. As opposed to being a basic signal-processing center, the area appears to have some link with emotion, the study said.
The research is one more critical step in comprehending ticklishness, Jaak Panksepp, a psychobiologist and animal researcher at Washington State University, told NPR. Panksepp said the evolutionary roots of ticklishness continue to be unclear, but it may have evolved to inspire play, which teaches social animals how to communicate.
“Children love to be tickled,” he said. “That’s part of growing up and becoming a full human being.”
Image credit: Shimpei Ishiyama & Michael Brech
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