The itch explained
It turns out that while making the cycling video (thanks for the kind comments and emails!) I was bit by a spider. That bite turned into an adventure in itching the likes of which I had not endured before, but not near as bad as the shocking story of “M” told in this week’s New Yorker.
Itching is quite the diabolical sensation:
Though scratching can provide momentary relief, it often makes the itching worse. Dermatologists call this the itch-scratch cycle. Scientists believe that itch, and the accompanying scratch reflex, evolved in order to protect us from insects and clinging plant toxins—from such dangers as malaria, yellow fever, and dengue, transmitted by mosquitoes; from tularemia, river blindness, and sleeping sickness, transmitted by flies; from typhus-bearing lice, plague-bearing fleas, and poisonous spiders. The theory goes a long way toward explaining why itch is so exquisitely tuned. You can spend all day without noticing the feel of your shirt collar on your neck, and yet a single stray thread poking out, or a louse’s fine legs brushing by, can set you scratching furiously.
But how, exactly, itch works has been a puzzle. For most of medical history, scientists thought that itching was merely a weak form of pain. Then, in 1987, the German researcher H. O. Handwerker and his colleagues used mild electric pulses to drive histamine, an itch-producing substance that the body releases during allergic reactions, into the skin of volunteers. As the researchers increased the dose of histamine, they found that they were able to increase the intensity of itch the volunteers reported, from the barely appreciable to the “maximum imaginable.” Yet the volunteers never felt an increase in pain. The scientists concluded that itch and pain are entirely separate sensations, transmitted along different pathways.
Despite centuries spent mapping the body’s nervous circuitry, scientists had never noticed a nerve specific for itch. But now the hunt was on, and a group of Swedish and German researchers embarked upon a series of tricky experiments. They inserted ultra-thin metal electrodes into the skin of paid volunteers, and wiggled them around until they picked up electrical signals from a single nerve fibre. … When they introduced a tiny dose of histamine into the skin, however, they observed a sharp electrical response in some of these nerve fibres, and the volunteer would experience an itch. They announced their discovery in a 1997 paper: they’d found a type of nerve that was specific for itch.
Unlike, say, the nerve fibres for pain, each of which covers a millimetre-size territory, a single itch fibre can pick up an itchy sensation more than three inches away. The fibres also turned out to have extraordinarily low conduction speeds, which explained why itchiness is so slow to build and so slow to subside…
Now various phenomena became clear. Itch, it turns out, is indeed inseparable from the desire to scratch. It can be triggered chemically (by the saliva injected when a mosquito bites, say) or mechanically (from the mosquito’s legs, even before it bites).
And with that the article goes on to explore a fascinating new scientific understanding of perception.