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Dan O’Connor on the Importance of Touch


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Dan O’Connor on the Importance of Touch

Interview compiled by Paige Bartlett
Dan O’Connor on the Importance of Touch

Neuroscientist Dan O’Connor’s research focuses on understanding what happens in our brain to perceive touch – a sense plays a crucial role in how we interpret our surroundings, move around and even our perception of pain. His lab has recently made a new discovery on how our brains process touch. On Jun 25, 2018, O’Connor joined Reddit’s Ask Me Anything and answered questions about his research.

Why do we need to understand touch? 

O’Connor: The sense of touch, I would argue, is the most fundamental of the senses. We can survive without the ability to see, hear, smell, but we cannot survive without the sense of touch. Babies won’t develop properly without touch, so it’s hard to say what our experience would be at all without the sense of touch.

Another answer is that movement and touch are intimately linked. Our ability to move properly in the world and interact with objects completely depends on the sense of touch. I would not be able to hold a coffee cup like this without a sense of touch. The way you know how hard to hold it so that it doesn’t slip out—and not so hard that you crush it—is that rapidly adapting sensors in the skin can sense when it starts to slide. They send a message to the brain really quickly to adjust the force. Getting that right in prosthesis can go a long way. Getting it right in all of its richness would take quite a lot of work, but will allow people who use prostheses to live in an entirely different way.

What is the state of technology today in terms of inducing/enabling touch sensations from prosthetics?

O’Connor: It’s clear to folks in the field of neuroscience and neuroprosthetics that getting the touch sensations “in the loop” is essential. This is a major area of interest, although my lab does not work directly on this. What’s clear is that even very basic touch feedback from prosthetics can go a long way to improving the function of the prosthetic. The sense of touch is so incredibly rich, however, that we have a long way to go in recapitulating the feedback that would normally come from the skin. So, there’s tons of room for improvements!

As we get older, is it possible that it takes longer to feel something since the neurons in our brain have degraded?

O’Connor: Well, I’m not sure about the speed of feeling, but it is true that our sense of touch changes as we age. The receptors in the skin even can get less dense, which could lead to a change in the acuity of touch.

What is the most challenging part of your research? 

O’Connor: I think that people who don’t make a career in science have an idea that you can be off by yourself making discoveries, and maybe that is true in certain areas of theoretical science. Maybe mathematicians may be able to go off with a pencil and paper, but what we do in biomedical science is absolutely a big team effort. You need to work as a team to turn an idea into a discovery and you have to take that discovery and communicate it. Because if you don’t communicate it, it may as well have not happened. Especially in neuroscience, it is a really collaborative field incorporating people from computer science to molecular biology. There are so many different types of training that can get leveraged—it is almost impossible for a single person to come in with the required skillset. 

Any advice for young researchers interested in your field? 

O’Connor: As long as you are really interested in the problem, you have something to contribute, regardless of your training. Science is moving so quickly, but if you step back, in brain science, we still have so far to go. So basically the field needs you. My undergrad degree is in liberal studies, but nobody really knows what that means. I have had varied experiences that I cobbled together to make my way here today. If you continue in the field, you’ll eventually get degrees and get job titles, but that basic process is the same all the way through. Even if you want to be a faculty member, the nature of that job is always changing and I never got trained in all those different skills, so I have to always be learning.