Neural correlates of ticklishness in the rat somatosensory cortex

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Science  11 Nov 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6313, pp. 757-760
DOI: 10.1126/science.aah5114

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Resolving a ticklish problem

What is the neural correlate of ticklishness? When Ishiyama and Brecht tickled rats, the animals produced noises and other joyful responses. During the tickling, the authors observed nerve cell activity in deep layers of the somatosensory cortex corresponding to the animals' trunks. Furthermore, microstimulation of this brain region evoked the same behavior. Just as in humans, mood could modulate this neuronal activity. Anxiety-inducing situations suppressed the cells' firing, and the animal could no longer be tickled.

Science, this issue p. 757


Rats emit ultrasonic vocalizations in response to tickling by humans. Tickling is rewarding through dopaminergic mechanisms, but the function and neural correlates of ticklishness are unknown. We confirmed that tickling of rats evoked vocalizations, approach, and unsolicited jumps (Freudensprünge). Recordings in the trunk region of the rat somatosensory cortex showed intense tickling-evoked activity in most neurons, whereas a minority of cells were suppressed by tickling. Tickling responses predicted nontactile neural responses to play behaviors, which suggests a neuronal link between tickling and play. Anxiogenic conditions suppressed tickling-evoked vocalizations and trunk cortex activity. Deep-layer trunk cortex neurons discharged during vocalizations, and deep-layer microstimulation evoked vocalizations. Our findings provide evidence for deep-layer trunk cortex activity as a neural correlate of ticklishness.

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