Skin temperature detection thresholds have been used to measure human cold and warm sensitivity across the temperature continuum. They exhibit a sensory zone within which neither warm nor cold sensations prevail. This zone has been widely assumed to coincide with steady-state local skin temperatures between 32 and 34°C, but its underlying neurophysiology has been rarely investigated. In this study we employ two approaches to characterize the properties of sensory thermoneutrality, testing for each whether neutrality shifts along the temperature continuum depending on adaptation to a preceding thermal state. The focus is on local spots of skin on the palm. Ten participants (age: 30.3 ± 4.8 yr) underwent two experiments. Experiment 1 established the cold-to-warm inter-detection threshold range for the palm’s glabrous skin and its shift as a function of 3 starting skin temperatures (26, 31, or 36°C). For the same conditions, experiment 2 determined a thermally neutral zone centered around a thermally neutral point in which thermoreceptors’ activity is balanced. The zone was found to be narrow (~0.98 to ~1.33°C), moving with the starting skin temperature over the temperature span 27.5–34.9°C (Pearson r = 0.94; P < 0.001). It falls within the cold-to-warm inter-threshold range (~2.25 to ~2.47°C) but is only half as wide. These findings provide the first quantitative analysis of the local sensory thermoneutral zone in humans, indicating that it does not occur only within a specific range of steady-state skin temperatures (i.e., it shifts across the temperature continuum) and that it differs from the inter-detection threshold range both quantitatively and qualitatively. These findings provide insight into thermoreception neurophysiology.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY Contrary to a widespread concept in human thermoreception, we show that local sensory thermoneutrality is achievable outside the 32–34°C skin temperature range. We propose that sensory adaption underlies a new mechanism of temperature integration. Also, we have developed from vision research a new quantitative test addressing the balance in activity of cutaneous cold and warm thermoreceptors. This could have important clinical (assessment of somatosensory abnormalities in neurological disease) and applied (design of personal comfort systems) implications.
- thermoneutral zone
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