Gentle touch is an important part of maternal care: it comforts, calms and enables the regulation of arousal in the new-born. A special group of nerve fibres makes a decisive contribution to the fact that humans - like other mammals - can experience gentle, caressing touch. These are called C-LTMR nerve fibers. It is not yet known at which stage of human development these nerve fibres are mature and, whether very premature infants can fully perceive and benefit from slow stroking touch.
To answer this question, the current project aims to analyse relevant data from humans and mice. The human data, collected by a different project group in Germany, will give insight into from what time of birth (gestational age) and what time after birth (postnatal age) preterm-born infants respond to gentle touch and use it to regulate arousal. In humans, it is not possible to activate C-LTMRs only, as other nerve fibres will always be activated as well. However, it can be done in mice. These data will be collected by a different group in France and address the question of how selective activation/inhibition of C-LTMRs impacts mice pups? arousal and response to social interaction. The current project will try to integrate and analyse these data together. Common approaches of analysing physiological arousal pool the data over a certain time interval. The new methods aim to go beyond these approaches by considering moment-to-moment signal fluctuations to more accurately pinpoint potential changes over time. Furthermore, we will investigate how parental attitudes to touch influence the parent?s tactile behaviour towards their preterm-born children.
In the end, the project will allow a new understanding of sensory impairment in the area of gentle touch perception with potential consequences for the care of premature infants.
Affective touch is of central importance in social interactions and early development of mammals. It is transmitted by a neural pathway originating in the C-low-threshold mechanoreceptors (C-LTMRs). C-LTMRs are highly reactive to tactile stimulation observed in maternal care – licking behaviour in mice and slow stroking in humans. Thus, C-LTMR mediated touch is one of the earliest forms of communication that enables the new-born to regulate arousal and emotions.
We aim to investigate sensory impairment of C-LTMR mediated touch in preterm-born infants and to map the time window of C-LTMR development. We will also investigate how such sensory impairment and parental characteristics affect the interaction of parents with their children.
The project can provide results important for understanding tactile sensory and social impairments by combining clinical research on pre-term born infants, animal models and innovative statistics. The results can provide ground-breaking insights into sensory developmental processes and lay the ground for a clinical intervention in preterm-born infants.