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Body mapping of perceptual responses to sweat and warm stimuli and their relation to physiological parameters

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posted on 26.11.2012, 09:01 by Nicola Gerrett
Regional differences in sweat gland output, skin temperature and thermoreceptor distribution can account for variations in regional perceptions of temperature, thermal comfort and wetness sensation. Large cohorts of studies have assessed these perceptual responses during sedentary activity but the findings are typically applied to a multitude of conditions, including exercise. Increases in sweat gland output, redistribution of blood flow and changes in skin and core temperature are basic responses to exercise in most conditions and these ultimately influence our perceptual responses. The primary aim of this thesis is to determine factors that influence regional differences in thermal sensation, thermal comfort and wetness sensation during exercise in moderate to hot conditions. The secondary aim is to develop and understand an additional variable, galvanic skin conductance (GSC) that can be used to predict thermal comfort and wetness sensation. The aim of the first study (Chapter 4) was to determine the influence of exercise on thermal sensitivity and magnitude sensation of warmth to a hot-dry stimulus (thermal probe at 40°C) and assess if any gender-linked differences and/or regional differences exist. From the data, body maps indicating sensitivity were produced for both genders during rest and exercise. Females had more regional differences than males. Overall sensitivity was greatest at the head, then the torso and declined towards the extremities. The data showed that exercise did not cause a significant reduction in thermal sensitivity but magnitude estimation was significantly lower after exercise for males and selected locations in females. The cause of a reduced magnitude sensation is thought to be associated with exercise induced analgesia; a reduction in sensitivity due to exercise related increases in circulating hormones. As the literature suggests that thermal comfort in the heat is influenced by the presence of sweat, the next study and all proceeding studies were concerned with this concept. In Chapter 5, building on earlier studies performed in our laboratories, the influence of local skin wettedness (wlocal) on local thermal comfort and wetness sensation was investigated in a neutral dry condition (20.2 ± 0.5°C and 43.5 ± 4.5% RH) whilst walking (4.5 km∙hr-1). Regional differences in wlocal were manipulated using specialised clothing comprising permeable and impermeable material areas. Strong correlations existed between local thermal comfort and local wetness sensation with the various measured wlocal (r2>0.88, p<0.05 and r2>0.83, p<0.05, respectively). The thermal comfort limit was defined as the wlocal value at which the participants no longer felt comfortable. Regional comfort limits for wlocal were identified (in order of high-low sensitivity); lower back (0.40), upper legs (0.44), lower legs (0.45), abdomen (0.45), chest (0.55), upper back (0.56), upper arms (0.57) and lower arms (0.65). The maximum degree of discomfort and wetness sensation experienced during the investigation was kept deliberately low in an attempt to determine the threshold values. Therefore comfort scores and wetness scores rarely reached a state of uncomfortable or wet so the next step was to assess these relationships when sweat production is high and the sensations worsened. However, pilot testing indicated that a ceiling effect would occur for wlocal at high levels of sweat production whilst thermal discomfort increased indicating wlocal was not the determining parameter in that case. Thus an additional parameter was required. The chosen parameter was galvanic skin conductance (GSC) due to its alleged ability to monitor pre-secretory sweat gland activity, skin hydration and surface sweat. In Chapter 6, the reliability, reproducibility and validity of GSC were confirmed in a series of pilot tests. Moderate to strong correlations were found between GSC and regional sweat rate (RSR) (r2>0.60, p<0.05) and wlocal (r2>0.55, p<0.05). The literature suggests standardising GSC relative to a minimum and maximum GSC value; however uncertainties arise when attempting to achieve maximum GSC. Therefore a change from baseline (∆GSC) was chosen as the proposed method of standardisation for further use. Additional results (from Chapter 9) revealed that ∆GSC also reflects pre-secretory sweat gland activity as it increased prior to sweat being present on the skin surface and prior to an increase in RSR. In Chapter 9, also hydration of the stratum corneum was measured using a moisture meter and the results revealed that it has an upper limit; indicating maximal hydration. From this point of full skin saturation ∆GSC and RSR markedly increase though sensations did not. It was also found that ∆GSC is only influenced by surface sweat that is in direct contact with the electrode and is not influenced by sweat elsewhere on the skin surface between electrodes. Higher levels of thermal discomfort have rarely been explored and neither has its relationship with wlocal. The ability of ∆GSC and wlocal to predict local thermal comfort and wetness sensation were compared in two different conditions to elicit low and high sweat production. Unlike Chapter 5, the body sites were not manipulated to control wlocal but allowed to vary naturally over time. The test was carried out on males (Chapter 7) and females (Chapter 8) to compare any gender linked differences and the results suggest that females are more sensitive than males to the initial presence of sweat. For both genders, wlocal and ∆GSC are strong predictors of thermal comfort and wetness sensation. More importantly, wlocal can only be used to predict local thermal comfort in conditions of low sweat production or low levels of thermal discomfort. However, once sweat production increases and thermal discomfort worsens ΔGSC (and not wlocal) can predict thermal comfort. Due to low sweat production observed in females indicates that this is only relevant for females. It appears that epidermal hydration has an important role on influencing thermal comfort. Receptors influencing our perceptual responses are located in the epidermis and when sweat is produced and released onto the skin surface, this epidermis swells and the sensitivity of receptors are said to increase. wlocal indicates the amount of moisture present on the skin surface, yet ∆GSC indicates presecretory sweat gland activity and epidermal hydration where the receptors are located. This may explain why on numerous occasions thermal comfort had a stronger relationship with ∆GSC than wlocal. Where Chapter 5 indicated the true local comfort limits for each respective zone, Chapter 7 and 8 provided a global picture of how local regions interact and influence local thermal comfort across the body. When wlocal varies naturally, the torso areas naturally produce more sweat than the extremities and it seemed that these areas produce so much more sweat than the extremities that they dominate local thermal comfort across the whole body. This is referred to in this thesis as a model of segmental interaction. As with thermal comfort, wetness sensation had strong relationships with wlocal and ∆GSC. The results also revealed a strong relationship between wetness sensation and thermal comfort. In contrast to the widely supported claim, a drop in skin temperature is not required to stimulate a wetness sensation. The point at which we detect sweat and when it becomes uncomfortable occurs at different wlocal values across the body. Thermal comfort is shown to be influenced by sweat during exercise in moderate-to-hot conditions. As w has an upper limit the findings suggest that it cannot predict thermal comfort during high sweat rates. Galvanic skin conductance monitors the process of sweat production more closely and thus is a better predictor of thermal comfort during all conditions and particularly during high sweat production. The strong relationship between thermal comfort and wetness sensation confirm the role of sweat production on thermal comfort. Gender differences to perceptual responses were observed, with females generally being more sensitive to sweat and a warm thermal stimulus than males. Regional differences to sweat and a warm stimulus generally suggest that the torso area is more sensitive than the extremities. This is important not only for sports clothing design but also protective clothing at the work place.



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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.

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