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Alena Streltsova, a doctoral research student working in the Infant and Child Laboratory, has published a study showing that touch areas of our own brain are activated as if we were being touched ourselves when we observe other people being touched. This study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, shows that somatosensory cortex is activated not only at a late stage of processing, but also at a very early stage of processing, before higher level visual areas have fully perceived the presence of the person being touched.

Alena Streltsova

Alena and her PhD supervisor, Dr Joe McCleery, have now replicated this finding in a group of young children, providing the first evidence for this type of “visual-tactile mirroring” in the brains of young children. Alena is presenting the results of the study of children at the 2013 Budapest CEU Conference on Cognitive Development in Budapest, Hungary.

child with EEG cap

 The team plan to use this technique to study whether or not children with autism, who experience significant difficulties with social interaction and understanding, also “mirror” the touch of others in their own brain. “This technique will allow us to determine whether or not children with autism mirror the touch feelings of others and, if not, whether they fail to do so at an early automatic stage of perception or, instead, at a later cognitive evaluation stage of processing,” say the researchers.

Streltsova, A. & McCleery, J. P. (2013). Neural time-course of the observation of human and non-human object touch. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, in press.