The neuroscience behind scratching an itch

The beautiful experience of alleviating an itch, the vigorous scratching of skin cells, and the white flakes that float away slowly and gently like a whimsical dream.

If only those with chronic itching problems could describe their conditions in such a serene way. In the latest edition of Nature Neuroscience, Diana Bautista and colleagues (2014) review the literature on the underlying mechanism of the itch at the molecular and cellular level within the peripheral and central nervous systems. They describe what drives acute and chronic itching and even quote the famous Buddhist Nagarjuna in their abstract.

"There is a pleasure when an itch is scratched. But to be without an itch is more pleasurable still".

They provide the reader with a few examples of neurological disorders where chronic itching can become a problem:

1. multiple sclerosis
2. diabetic neuropathy
3. shingles

They also boldly state that the act of itching serves no biological purpose.

Because I currently do not have institutional access to any research journals, I can only surmise that this article is an incredibly interesting read (although there is a greater likelihood that the details would go over my head). But alas, I now suffer from an inability to rid myself of this nagging itch to read Bautista et al.'s article so that I can write a decent blog post about it.

You can check out the first page here.

You can also enjoy this Times read on the mysteries of the itch and how a molecule known as a neuropeptide natriuretic polypeptide b (Nppb) plays a crucial role in the itching process.


Bautista, D., Wilson, S., & Hoon, M. (2014). Why we scratch an itch: the molecules, cells and circuits of itch Nature Neuroscience, 17 (2), 175-182 DOI: 10.1038/nn.3619

The above image is from


  1. Hey! If you need access to papers for blogging, feel free to mail me: neuroskeptic at googlemail dot com :)

  2. Thanks Neuroskeptic, much appreciated! Just started new job so figuring it all out. Will definitely take you up on your offer if things don't work out though.


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