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Drug improves the sense of touch, Science study says

Scientists used a stimulation technique to improve the sensitivity of people's fingertips, and then gave them drugs that either doubled or deleted this effect. Similar skin stimulation/drug treatment combinations may eventually help the elderly or stroke victims button shirts and aid professional pianists according to the authors of a paper appearing in the 04 July issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the science society.

Finger stimulations and drugs can temporarily reorganize parts of the human brain. This stimulation, called co-activation, shuffles the synapses that link neurons. The stimulated area becomes more sensitive as more neurons are recruited to process encountered tactile information. The scientists showed that amphetamine doubled stimulation-induced gains in tactile acuity. In the presence of an alternate drug, an NMDA blocker, the improvements in tactile acuity, or perceptual learning, gained via finger stimulations were lost.

Dinse said that related treatments could improve a person's ability to read Braille and that drug-mediated muscle stimulation could help the elderly and chronic pain patients perform everyday tasks.

"We are at the beginning of an era where we can interact with the brain. We can apply what we know about brain plasticity to train it to alter behavior. People are always trying to find ways to improve learning. What we tested is unconscious skill learning. How far could this carry to cognitive learning?that remains to be seen," said Dinse.

"My personal opinion," Dinse maintained, "is that progress in brain pharmacology will sooner or later result in implications that are equally or possibly more dramatic than the implications tied to discussions about genes and cloning."

To understand tactile acuity, imagine closing your eyes and running your hands over a boulder. A high degree of tactile acuity translates into the ability to sense lots of variety in the textures of the rock.
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Contact: Daniel Kane
dkane@aaas.org
202-326-6634
American Association for the Advancement of Science
3-Jul-2003


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