16 Itch

Learning Objectives

Know how neurons initiate a sensation of itching.

Be able to describe an experiment that tests whether or not itch is a sensation other than pain.

Itch was not originally identified as its own sensory modality. Instead, researchers thought itch was the brain’s interpretation (perception) of mild or subthreshold stimulation of nociceptors. However, specific receptors for itch have been identified, which means that itch is a unique sensation. For example, capsaicin activates receptors on peripheral nerve endings to induce pain, while histamine activates different receptors on a subset of capsaicin-responsive nerve endings to induce itch (LaMotte, 2014).

Unique, itch-selective neurons have been discovered and characterized as having unmyelinated axons with free nerve endings, not unlike thermal and mechanical nociceptors. In a microneurography experiment, researchers isolated the unmyelinated axons of 56 different neurons in the legs of healthy volunteers (Schmelz, 1997). None of the axons carried spontaneous action potentials, and 13 did not respond to high heat or strong pressure, ruling them out as mechanoreceptors or thermal nociceptors. However, when histamine was slowly injected into the skin, the neurons that had been non-responsive started sending action potentials. The rate of action potentials correlated with the participants’ reports of the severity of the itch, and when the action potentials started fading away, so did the sensation of itch (see Fig.2.7.1).

The top trace shows a line sloping down from 10 Hz to 0.1 Hz from 2 min to 16 min after stimulus onset. The bottom curve shows behavioral ratings increasing from 2-3 minutes, to a peak of about 10 on a scale of 0-100 (where 100 is unbearable), then sloping down over the course of the next 13 minutes.
Fig. 2.7.1. The frequency of C-fiber action potentials elicited by application of the itch-causing chemical histamine (top) is similar in time-course and intensity to the perception of histamine-induced itch reported by human participants on a visual analog scale (VAS) (bottom) (credit: Schmelz, 1997)

It is still unknown exactly how itch signals are coded separately from pain signals in the central nervous system. It is widely accepted that there does not exist a labeled line for itch, as itch-responsive neurons are a subset of pain-responsive neurons in the spinal cord and cortex. Instead, it is likely that itch is mediated by a population code whereby specific activation of itch-selective neurons within the population of pain-responsive neurons results in the perception of itch (LaMotte, 2014).


Figure 2.7.2 The average perceived intensity of itch in humans and the mean discharge rates of primary afferents and spinothalamic tract neurons recorded in monkeys are depicted (n = number of human subjects or number of nerve fibers or STT neurons tested). Assuming analogous sensations between monkeys and humans, the observation that itch initiates with the onset of activity in these neurons, reaches a peak magnitude, and declines in approximate alignment with the activity suggests that itch is mediated, at least in part, by the activity of these neurons.
Author: Cheryl Olman
Provided by: University of Minnesota
License: CC BY 4.0


Schmelz et al (1997). Specific C-Receptors for Itch in Human Skin. J. Neuroscience 17(20):8003-8008

LaMotte, Dong, and Ringkamp (2014). Sensory neurons and circuits mediating itch. Nature Reviews: Neuroscience. 15: 19-31.

Lamotte, Robert & Dong, Xinzhong & Ringkamp, Matthias. (2013). Sensory neurons and circuits mediating itch. Nature reviews. Neuroscience. 15. 19-31. 10.1038/nrn3641.


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Introduction to Sensation and Perception Copyright © 2022 by Students of PSY 3031 and Edited by Dr. Cheryl Olman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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