Project ARTTOUCH is funded by an ERC Consolidator grant to Rochelle Ackerley and aims to investigate how human touch is encoded, perceived, and can be artificially created to give a sense of touch to those lacking touch, such as in amputees with prosthetics.
Somatosensation encompass a wide range of processes, from feeling touch to temperature, as well as experiencing pleasure and pain. When afferent inputs are degraded or removed, such as in neuropathies or amputation, exploring the world becomes extremely difficult. Chronic pain is a major health issue that greatly diminishes quality of life and is one of the most disabling and costly conditions in Europe. The loss of a body part is common due to accidents, tumours, or peripheral diseases, and it has instantaneous effects on somatosensory functioning. Treating such disorders entails detailed knowledge about how somatosensory signals are encoded. Understanding these processes will enable the restoration of healthy function, such as providing real-time, naturalistic feedback in prostheses. To date, no prosthesis currently provides long-term sensory feedback, yet accomplishing this will lead to great quality of life improvements. The present proposal aims to uncover how basic tactile processes are encoded and represented centrally, as well as how more complex somatosensation is generated (e.g. wetness, pleasantness). Novel investigations will be conducted in humans to probe these mechanisms, including peripheral in vivo recording (microneurography) and neural stimulation, combined with advanced brain imaging and behavioural experiments. Preliminary work has shown the feasibility of the approach, where it is possible to visualise the activation of single mechanoreceptive afferents in the human brain. The multi-disciplinary approach unites detailed, high-resolution, functional investigations with actual sensations generated. The results will elucidate how basic and complex somatosensory processes are encoded, providing insights into the recovery of such signals. The knowledge gained aims to provide pain-free, efficient diagnostic capabilities for detecting and quantifying a range of somatosensory disorders, as well as identifying new potential therapeutic targets.