Reduction of itching by visuo-tactile illusion
We wanted to test whether central mechanisms of scratching-induced itch attenuation can be activated by scratching the limb contralateral to the itching limb when the participant is made to visually perceive the non-itching limb as the itching limb by means of mirror images.
Healthy participants were asked to assess the intensity of an experimentally induced itch at their right forearm while they observed externally guided scratch movements either at their right (itching) or left (non-itching) forearm which were either mirrored or not mirrored. In the first experiment, a mirror placed between the participant’s forearms was used to create the visual illusion that the participant’s itching (right) forearm was being scratched while in fact the non-itching (left) forearm was scratched. To control visibility of the left (non-mirrored) forearm, a second experiment was performed in which unflipped and flipped real-time video displays of the participant’s forearms were used to create experimental conditions in which the participant visually perceived scratching either on one forearm only, on both forearms, or no scratching at all.
In both experiments, scratching the non-itching limb attenuated perceived itch intensity significantly and selectively in the mirror condition, i.e., when the non-itching forearm was visually perceived as the itching limb.
These data provide evidence that the visual illusion that an itching limb is being scratched while in fact the non-itching limb contralateral to the itching limb is scratched, can lead to significant itch relief. This effect might be due to a transient illusionary intersensory perceptual congruency of visual, tactile and pruriceptive signals, which might be mediated by parietal cortex. “Mirror scratching” might provide an alternative treatment to reduce itch perception in focal skin diseases with persistent pruritus without causing additional harm to the affected skin and might therefore have significant clinical impact.