A fovea for pain at the fingertips

Curr Biol. 2013 Mar 18;23(6):496-500. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.008. Epub 2013 Mar 7.


The spatial resolution of sensory systems is not homogeneous across their receptive surfaces. For example, tactile acuity is greatest on the fingertips, reflecting the high innervation density and small mechanoreceptive fields in this area [1, 2]. In contrast, pain is considered to lack any equivalent to the tactile fovea on the fingertips, where the density of nociceptive fibers is remarkably low [3]. Here, by combining psychophysics with histology, we show that this established notion is incorrect. By delivering small-diameter nociceptive-specific laser pulses to human volunteers, we discovered that (1) the spatial acuity for pain is higher on the fingertips than on proximal skin regions such as the hand dorsum, and (2) this distal-proximal gradient for pain is comparable to that for touch. In contrast, skin biopsies in the same participants showed that the intraepidermal nerve fiber density is lower in the fingertips than in the hand dorsum. The increased spatial acuity for pain on the fingertips therefore cannot be explained simply by peripheral innervation density. This finding is, however, consistent with the existence of fine-grained maps of nociceptive input to individual digits in the human primary somatosensory cortex [4].

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Fingers / innervation
  • Fingers / physiology*
  • Hand / innervation
  • Hand / physiology
  • Humans
  • Lasers
  • Male
  • Nerve Fibers / physiology
  • Nociception
  • Pain Perception*
  • Sensory Thresholds
  • Skin / innervation
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology*
  • Touch Perception