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Gene-brain Correlates of Affective touch

Principal Investigator:

India Morrison, Postdoctoral research fellow, Department of Neuroscience and Physiology and Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Göteborg University

The affective dimension of touch allows us to experience the vital positively emotional aspects of touch on the skin, and plays a particularly essential role in social interactions. The proposed research investigates this important domain of touch through the converging perspectives of genes, brain, and behavior. Central to affective touch pathways is a recently-discovered type of nerve fiber in the skin, the mechanoreceptive tactile C (CT) afferent, which carries signals to the brain when the skin is stroked gently. CT pathways are influenced by the nerve growth factor (NGF) gene. This project measures the NGF gene's contribution to affective touch pathways in the brain. It employs "imaging genetics", a technique relating genetic factors to brain function using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This project explores the impact of normal variation among NGF gene single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) on affective touch pathways. Minor variation in the form of SNPs among the general population may contribute to quantifiable phenotypic differences in the functional anatomy of CT afferents and the brain, as well as subjective and behavioral responses to affective touch. A central component of this project is to examine a group of unique patients with a rare mutation of the NGF beta subunit, which results in a severe reduction of CT afferents in the skin. Since this heritable mutation has a functional impact on the NGF protein, studying it not only carries clinical relevance for affected individuals, but would serve to further our understanding of the relationship of NGF to sensory processing.


India Morrison, Ph.D., currently occupies a postdoctoral position at the University of Gothenburg, investigating the properties of a newly-discovered type of nerve fiber in humans, the CT afferent, which plays a role in how we perceive the pleasantness of gentle touch to the skin. A major current in India Morrison's neuroscience research is the study of empathy with fMRI. Her experimental work has used pain and touch to address questions about empathy, but also seeks to turn these questions around to yield new information about the neural pathways of these senses. Dr. Morrison's career reflects her desire to seek a professional balance between neuroscience and philosophy. In 1996 she received Her Bachelor of Arts degree from St. John's College (Santa Fe, New Mexico), a small college with a Great Books curriculum concentrating on philosophy, mathematics, and literature. As an undergraduate she also spent a year studying biology and ethology (the science of animal behavior) at St. Anne's College, Oxford University, England. After a period of teaching philosophy, she received her PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience in 2006 from the top-ranked School for Psychology at the University of Bangor in Wales, United Kingdom.

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