Food vibrations: Asian spice sets lips trembling

Proc Biol Sci. 2013 Sep 11;280(1770):20131680. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1680. Print 2013 Nov 7.


Szechuan pepper, a widely used ingredient in the cuisine of many Asian countries, is known for the tingling sensation it induces on the tongue and lips. While the molecular mechanism by which Szechuan pepper activates tactile afferent fibres has been clarified, the tingling sensation itself has been less studied, and it remains unclear which fibres are responsible. We investigated the somatosensory perception of tingling in humans to identify the characteristic temporal frequency and compare this to the established selectivity of tactile afferents. Szechuan pepper was applied to the lower lip of participants. Participants judged the frequency of the tingling sensation on the lips by comparing this with the frequencies of mechanical vibrations applied to their right index finger. The perceived frequency of the tingling was consistently at around 50 Hz, corresponding to the range of tactile RA1 afferent fibres. Furthermore, adaptation of the RA1 channel by prolonged mechanical vibration reliably reduced the tingling frequency induced by Szechuan pepper, confirming that the frequency-specific tactile channel is shared between Szechuan pepper and mechanical vibration. Combining information about molecular reactions at peripheral receptors with quantitative psychophysical measurement may provide a unique method for characterizing unusual experiences by decomposing them into identifiable minimal units of sensation.

Keywords: Szechuan pepper; food; frequency adaptation; tactile perception; touch fibres; vibrotactile frequency.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amides / pharmacology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lip / drug effects*
  • Lip / physiology
  • Male
  • Mechanoreceptors / drug effects*
  • Mechanoreceptors / physiology
  • Skin / drug effects
  • Skin / physiopathology
  • Spices*
  • Touch Perception / drug effects*
  • Vibration
  • Young Adult
  • Zanthoxylum / chemistry*


  • Amides
  • sanshool