Our body has five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Out of these five, touch seems to comes across as the poor cousin, however research is shining a light on its importance and the role it plays in the development of our brain. Touch develops whilst in the womb at 8 weeks and is the very first sense to form and develop. The baby then develops a huge network of nerves that allow us to feel and sense things. The sense of touch is divided into four different sensory abilities:
-Touch (cutaneous sensation): Touch is being able to tell that a part of your skin is connected to something else. A child’s body has touch receptors in the skin. The touch receptors sense pressure on the skin and send information to touch neurons in the brain.
-Temperature: A child’s body has temperature receptors in the skin that actually work independently of the touch (pressure) receptors. Information from pressure and temperature receptors then meet up in the brain. Newborns can feel temperature, but are not good at regulating their own temperature.
-Pain: A child’s body also has receptors that communicate pain to the brain. It is thought that pain receptors are active from the third trimester of pregnancy and that a newborn can experience pain.
-Proprioception: This is knowing the position and movement of the body. A child collects information from the skin and from the muscles and joints to tell their brain about where their body and limbs are positioned.
This last one, proprioception and its ensuing development becomes highly important when dealing with posture and as we have discussed in previous posts chronic health issues and our response to stress.
Research, led by Nathalie Maitre, at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio demonstrated that our sensory experiences in early life have important effects on brain function.
First, they recorded the typical brain response to touch in full-term babies (babies born on or after 37 weeks of pregnancy). They then recorded the brain activity of babies born prematurely (before 37 weeks). Premature and full-term babies were matched by age.
Compared with full-term babies, premature babies showed starkly reduced brain activity when they were touched. The researchers also noted a difference in the distribution of electrical activity across the scalp – that is, different parts of the brain became active at different times when they were touched.
The researchers also showed, for the first time, that for premature babies the quality of touch while in hospital after birth (typically around one month) affected the functioning of the babies’ brains. When they tested the premature babies, just before they were discharged from hospital, they found that the more they experienced pleasant, nurturing touch (such as breastfeeding or skin contact) the greater the brain response to touch. Conversely, unpleasant touch, such as skin punctures and tube insertions, were associated with reduced brain activity.
Maitre’s findings add to the growing understanding that the functioning of the brain cannot be considered separately to that of the body.
The sensory system supporting touch and bodily sensations is the earliest to develop in humans and may form a basis for many processes that come later, such as the development of other senses, and social and cognitive development. This may be why abnormal sensory processing is a strong predictor of health problems and learning difficulties in later life.
The take home message…ensure that yours and your children’s spines are checked for nerve system interference. Your neurology (and theirs) developed whilst in the womb, and continues to develop as we grow. By ensuring that your neurology works unimpeded, the development of your senses and your cognitive and social development will be enhanced.