Socially-relevant visual stimulation modulates physiological response to affective touch in human infants

Elena Nava, Roberta Etzi, Alberto Gallace, Viola Macchi Cassia
Neuroscience 2020 July 10
The human tactile system is known to discriminate different types of touches, one of these termed 'affective touch', is mainly mediated by slow conducting tactile afferents (CT fibres), which are preferentially activated by slow and gentle strokes. Human infants experience self-generated tactile stimulation during prenatal life, and they receive a large amount of affectionate touches by their caregivers from birth. This early and extended experience with tactile stimulation may likely make infants particularly sensitive to affective touch, and increasing evidence shows that this may indeed be the case. However, infants commonly experience affective touch in the context of social interactions with familiar adults (e.g., while looking at their caregiver), and recent evidence suggests that this helps them assigning affiliative and communicative meaning to the touch they are perceiving. Here we investigated the presence of visual-tactile interactions in 4-5-month-old infants' physiological (i.e., skin conductance) and behavioural (i.e., visual looking times) responses to visual and tactile stimulation of affective/social nature when the sources of both stimulation are not familiar to the infant. To explore whether the modulation of physiological arousal elicited by the socially-relevant bimodal stimulation is specific to infants or extends into adulthood, we also tested a group of adults. Infants (N = 25) and adults (N = 25) were stimulated on their forearm through slow stroking (i.e. affective touch) or tapping (i.e. non-affective touch) during the observation of dynamic images of socially-relevant (i.e., an unfamiliar face) and non-socially-relevant (i.e., a house) stimuli. We found that the simultaneous presentation of socially-relevant visual-tactile stimuli significantly decreased infants' - but not the adults' - electrodermal response, suggesting that infants easily integrate low-level properties of affective touch with socially salient visual information, and that social experience may tune and change sensitivity to affective touch across the life-span.

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