2 Jan. 2022

TOPIC: Psychological Factors in Itch and Pain

Since itch and pain can be very burdensome, especially when individuals suffer from (either of) these symptoms chronically, it is important to know the factors by which these sensations are influenced. It becomes more and more clear that psychological factors play an important role in the experience of itch and pain. Psychological factors that can aggravate itch and/or pain are likely also factors that can be used to reverse the process, in order to diminish these sensations. Examples of such processes are focusing attention versus disengaging attention, expectations of itch and pain increase versus decrease, negative emotions versus positive emotions, and long-term avoiding responses versus approaching responses. Directly comparing itch and pain can facilitate understanding of both symptoms.


Multidisciplinary research: This research line focuses on elucidating how psychophysiological factors can play a role in the experience of itch and pain, which both are sensations that warn us for potential threat to our body. On the one hand, we attempt to understand how psychophysiological factors can aggravate itch and pain, and on the other hand, we hope this will provide us targets for multidisciplinary interventions.

Main focus of this topic

Within this theme, there is a large emphasis on the cognitive factors, but there is also a focus on affective and behavioral factors.

  1. Cognitive factors
    1. Regarding attention, we study for instance whether focusing attention on versus disengaging attention away from itch and pain can change their perception, whether itch and pain stimuli draw attention, and how the experience of itch and pain interfere with performing a task (see Project van Laarhoven, Attentional processing of itch and pain).
    2. Regarding expectancy, it is investigated how expectations are learned and how and to which extent they can affect the experience of itch and pain (see Topic Placebo).
  2. Regarding affective factors in itch and pain perception, we focus for instance on the effects of negative emotions on itch and pain.
  3. The role of behavioral factors is investigated for instance by scratching an itch and avoidance of pain.

Study methods

We make use of various ways to induce itch and pain, mainly using quantitative sensory testing (QST) stimuli, such as histamine iontophoresis or cowhage application to induce itch, and electrical or heat/cold stimulation to induce pain. Also, pictures and words related to itch and pain are used in our research, often in behavioral tasks. We measure brain activity during itch and pain stimulus processing by use of electroencephalography (EEG) and do some virtual reality research. Outcomes include self-reported itch and pain, EEG measures, eye gaze, and reaction times for the behavioral tasks.

Long-term goal

Eventually, we hope to increase our understanding of the common and distinct processes that play a role in itch and pain with the aim to find ways to counteract these processes and decrease these sensations. This is particularly relevant for those who suffer from itch and pain on a chronic basis, e.g., patients with a chronic skin condition such as atopic dermatitis and patients with rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia.


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