Tactile innervation densities across the whole body

J Neurophysiol. 2020 Oct 1;124(4):1229-1240. doi: 10.1152/jn.00313.2020. Epub 2020 Sep 23.


The skin is our largest sensory organ and innervated by afferent fibers carrying tactile information to the spinal cord and onto the brain. The density with which different classes of tactile afferents innervate the skin is not constant but varies considerably across different body regions. However, precise estimates of innervation density are only available for some body parts, such as the hands, and estimates of the total number of tactile afferent fibers are inconsistent and incomplete. Here we reconcile different estimates and provide plausible ranges and best estimates for the number of different tactile fiber types innervating different regions of the skin, using evidence from dorsal root fiber counts, microneurography, histology, and psychophysics. We estimate that the skin across the whole body of young adults is innervated by ∼230,000 tactile afferent fibers (plausible range: 200,000-270,000), with a subsequent decrement of 5-8% every decade due to aging. Fifteen percent of fibers innervate the palmar skin of both hands and 19% the region surrounding the face and lips. Slowly and fast-adapting fibers are split roughly evenly, but this breakdown varies with skin region. Innervation density correlates well with psychophysical spatial acuity across different body regions, and, additionally, on hairy skin, with hair follicle density. Innervation density is also weakly correlated with the size of the cortical somatotopic representation but cannot fully account for the magnification of the hands and the face.

Keywords: afferent; glabrous skin; hairy skin; homunculus; mechanoreceptor.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / physiology
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Skin / cytology
  • Skin / innervation*
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology
  • Touch Perception*
  • Touch*