Neurons in our skin are performing advanced calculations
touch-neurons
Image: Mattias Pettersson

Researchers from Umeå University in Sweden have been studying a particular class of sensory neurons in the human tactile, or touch, system called 'first-order neurons' to discover that they possess some pretty incredible properties. 

These neurons branch through our skin to record the sensation of touch from many highly sensitive zones on our fingertips, and it’s now been revealed that they’re not just sending signals to the brain indicating that the skin has encountered some kind of object. It turns they’re also processing complex information about that object before they send a signal on to the brain. Once the signal has been received by neurons in the brain’s cerebral cortex region, further calculations are then completed.

And thanks to the densely branched structure of these neurons, they’re not only able to collect information from many different areas on the surface of the skin about when and how intensely an object is being touched, the particular arrangement in which they’re branched means they can also process all kinds of information about the object’s shape. 

"Perhaps the most surprising result of our study is that these peripheral neurons, which are engaged when a fingertip examines an object, perform the same type of calculations done by neurons in the cerebral cortex,” said one of the team, neuroscientist Andrew Pruszynski, in a press release. "Somewhat simplified, it means that our touch experiences are already processed by neurons in the skin before they reach the brain for further processing."

The team has reported their finding in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

While the research is cool enough on its own because it’s given us a deeper understanding of the incredibly complex work that’s going on inside us every single second, it also has the potential to improve treatments for nerve injury, says Eric Mack at Forbes, since it had been assumed up till now that the cerebral cortex was doing all the work on its own.