Disclosure statement Harriet Dempsey-Jones does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and touch cognitive development of children of early age disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. University of Oxford provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK. The Conversation UK receives funding from Hefce, Hefcw, SAGE, SFC, RCUK, The Nuffield Foundation, The Ogden Trust, The Royal Society, The Wellcome Trust, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Alliance for Useful Evidence, as well as sixty five university members. Touch underpins our social world and, evidence suggests, it may even help to reduce anxiety and provide pain relief.
But can touch shape the actual organisation of our brains? This was recently demonstrated by a team of researchers, led by Nathalie Maitre, at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. The researchers fitted 125 babies’ heads with electrodes and recorded their brain activity while their skin was lightly touched. Premature and full-term babies were matched by age.
Compared with full-term babies, premature babies showed starkly reduced brain activity when they were touched. This demonstrates that our sensory experiences in early life have important effects on brain function. Maitre’s findings add to the growing understanding that the functioning of the brain cannot be considered separately to that of the body. The sensory system supporting touch and bodily sensations is the earliest to develop in humans and may form a basis for many processes that come later, such as the development of other senses, and social and cognitive development.
This may be why abnormal sensory processing is a strong predictor of health problems and learning difficulties in later life. The link with autism Another study that highlights how early experiences with touch can shape the brain and behaviour in later life was published in Cell last year. This work, by researchers at Harvard University, found an association between hypersensitive touch in mice pups and psychological problems that resemble aspects of autism. The researchers caused mutations of genes associated with autism in the skin of mice, causing hypersensitivity and a change in texture perception. Children with autism are often hypersensitive to certain textures. Overwhelming tactile sensations during a child’s exploration of the world might cause them to withdraw, leading to delays in language development and social skills.
Similarly, being blind or deaf may affect a child’s behaviour and brain development through a form of sensory-imposed social deprivation. Maitre provides insights into how experience shapes our mind, but her study also has clear relevance for the care of newborn babies. Can a lack of love be deadly? Could sibling brain activity provide autism clue? Best way to avoid back pain? Stay informed and subscribe to our free daily newsletter and get the latest analysis and commentary directly in your inbox.