Touch massage (TM) is a form of pleasant touch stimulation used as treatment in clinical settings and found to improve well-being and decrease anxiety, stress, and pain. Emotional responses reported during and after TM have been studied, but the underlying mechanisms are still largely unexplored. In this study, we used functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) to test the hypothesis that the combination of human touch (i.e. skin-to-skin contact) with movement is eliciting a specific response in brain areas coding for pleasant sensations. The design included four different touch conditions; human touch with or without movement and rubber glove with or without movement. Force (2.5 N) and velocity (1.5 cm/s) were held constant across conditions. The pleasantness of the four different touch stimulations was rated on a visual analog scale (VAS-scale) and human touch was rated as most pleasant, particularly in combination with movement. The fMRI results revealed that TM stimulation most strongly activated the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pgACC). These results are consistent with findings showing pgACC activation during various rewarding pleasant stimulations. This area is also known to be activated by both opioid analgesia and placebo. Together with these prior results, our finding furthers the understanding of the basis for positive TM treatment effects.
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