Spatial summation of chemical irritation and itch produced by topical application of capsaicin

Percept Psychophys. 1990 Jul;48(1):12-8. doi: 10.3758/bf03205007.


The effect of increasing the total area of stimulation on the sensations of irritation produced by topical application of capsaicin was studied in two experiments. In the first experiment, stimulus area was varied by changing the size of filter paper disks on which capsaicin was delivered to the skin of the forearm. Subjects rated the intensity and quality of the cutaneous sensations over a 15-min period. Increasing stimulus area by a factor of 15 resulted in a relatively modest increase in the peak perceived intensity of irritation, a shortening of the latency to the onset of irritation, and shifts in the frequency of reports of sensations of itching and stinging/pricking. However, itch was the most frequently reported sensation regardless of stimulus size. In Experiment 2, stimulus area was manipulated by varying the number of stimuli applied to the skin. Despite a smaller difference in total stimulus areas (9-fold vs. 15-fold), the difference in perceived irritation was more pronounced than it was in Experiment 1 and reached statistical significance. It is therefore concluded that spatial summation does occur in the afferent system or systems responsible for the perception of capsaicin on the skin. This result is consistent with previous reports of summation at the threshold for heat pain and constitutes new information about the spatial integration of pruritic stimulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Capsaicin / toxicity*
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / drug effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nociceptors / drug effects*
  • Psychophysics
  • Sensory Thresholds / drug effects
  • Skin / innervation*
  • Synaptic Transmission / drug effects*


  • Capsaicin