The social brain hypothesis proposes that the demands of the social environment provided the evolutionary pressure that led to the expansion of the primate brain. Consistent with this notion, that functioning in the social world is crucial to our survival, while close supportive relationships are known to enhance well-being, a range of social stressors such as abuse, discrimination and dysfunctional relationships can increase the risk of psychiatric disorders. The centrality of the social world to our everyday lives is further exemplified by the fact that abnormality in social behaviour is a salient feature of a range of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders. This paper aims to provide a selective overview of current knowledge of the neurobiological basis of our ability to form and maintain close personal relationships, and of the benefits these relationships confer on our health. Focusing on neurochemical and neuroendocrine interactions within affective and motivational neural circuits, it highlights the specific importance of cutaneous somatosensation in affiliative behaviours and psychological well-being and reviews evidence, in support of the hypothesis, that a class of cutaneous unmyelinated, low threshold mechanosensitive nerves, named c-tactile afferents, have a direct and specific role in processing affiliative tactile stimuli.
Keywords: Affiliation; C-tactile afferents; Dopamine; Opiates; Oxytocin; Serotonin; Social; Stress; Touch.
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