The functional architecture of S1 during touch observation described with 7 T fMRI

Brain Struct Funct. 2014 Jan;219(1):119-40. doi: 10.1007/s00429-012-0489-z. Epub 2013 Jan 3.


Recent studies indicate that the primary somatosensory cortex (S1) is active not only when touch is physically perceived but also when it is merely observed to be experienced by another person. This social responsivity of S1 has important implications for our understanding of S1 functioning. However, S1 activity during touch observation has not been characterized in great detail to date. We focused on two features of the S1 functional architecture during touch observation, namely the topographical arrangement of index and middle finger receptive fields (RFs), and their dynamic shrinkage during concurrent activation. Both features have important implications for human behavior. We conducted two fMRI studies at 7 T, one where touch was physically perceived, and one where touch was observed. In the two experiments, participants either had their index finger and/or middle finger stimulated using paintbrushes, or just observed similar touch events on video. Our data show that observing and physically experiencing touch elicits overlapping activity changes in S1. In addition, observing touch to the index finger or the middle finger alone evoked topographically arranged activation foci in S1. Importantly, when co-activated, the index and middle finger RFs not only shrank during physical touch perception, but also during touch observation. Our data, therefore, indicate a similarity between the functional architecture of S1 during touch observation and physical touch perception with respect to single-digit topography and RF shrinkage. These results may allow the tentative conclusion that even primary somatosensory experiences, such as physical touch perception, can be shared amongst individuals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Fingers / innervation
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Observation*
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Reaction Time
  • Somatosensory Cortex / blood supply*
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology*
  • Touch / physiology*
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen