Human skin wetness perception: psychophysical and neurophysiological bases

2015-02-12T15:22:18Z (GMT) by Davide Filingeri George Havenith
The ability to perceive thermal changes in the surrounding environment is critical for survival. However, sensing temperature is not the only factor among the cutaneous sensations to contribute to thermoregulatory responses in humans. Sensing skin wetness (i.e. hygrosensation) is also critical both for behavioral and autonomic adaptations. Although much has been done to define the biophysical role of skin wetness in contributing to thermal homeostasis, little is known on the neurophysiological mechanisms underpinning the ability to sense skin wetness. Humans are not provided with skin humidity receptors (i.e., hygroreceptors) and psychophysical studies have identified potential sensory cues (i.e. thermal and mechanosensory) which could contribute to sensing wetness. Recently, a neurophysiological model of human wetness sensitivity has been developed. In helping clarifying the peripheral and central neural mechanisms involved in sensing skin wetness, this model has provided evidence for the existence of a specific human hygrosensation strategy, which is underpinned by perceptual learning via sensory experience. Remarkably, this strategy seems to be shared by other hygroreceptor-lacking animals. However, questions remain on whether these sensory mechanisms are underpinned by specific neuromolecular pathways in humans. Although the first study on human wetness perception dates back to more than 100 years, it is surprising that the neurophysiological bases of such an important sensory feature have only recently started to be unveiled. Hence, to provide an overview of the current knowledge on human hygrosensation, along with potential directions for future research, this review will examine the psychophysical and neurophysiological bases of human skin wetness perception.