Touch neurons underlying dopaminergic pleasurable touch and sexual receptivity

Cell. 2023 Feb 2;186(3):577-590.e16. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2022.12.034. Epub 2023 Jan 23.


Pleasurable touch is paramount during social behavior, including sexual encounters. However, the identity and precise role of sensory neurons that transduce sexual touch remain unknown. A population of sensory neurons labeled by developmental expression of the G protein-coupled receptor Mrgprb4 detects mechanical stimulation in mice. Here, we study the social relevance of Mrgprb4-lineage neurons and reveal that these neurons are required for sexual receptivity and sufficient to induce dopamine release in the brain. Even in social isolation, optogenetic stimulation of Mrgprb4-lineage neurons through the back skin is sufficient to induce a conditioned place preference and a striking dorsiflexion resembling the lordotic copulatory posture. In the absence of Mrgprb4-lineage neurons, female mice no longer find male mounts rewarding: sexual receptivity is supplanted by aggression and a coincident decline in dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens. Together, these findings establish that Mrgprb4-lineage neurons initiate a skin-to-brain circuit encoding the rewarding quality of social touch.

Keywords: peripheral optogenetics; pleasure; reward pathway; spinal cord; touch.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dopamine* / metabolism
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / metabolism
  • Female
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Nucleus Accumbens / metabolism
  • Optogenetics
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / metabolism
  • Reward
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / metabolism
  • Skin / metabolism
  • Touch*


  • Dopamine
  • MrgprB4 protein, mouse
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled