Why It Feels Good to Scratch

Researchers use a brain scan to unlock the mystery of why we scratch.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 12:15 AM

Jan. 31, 2008— -- Skin might seem like a simple messenger, telling the brain if it's hot, if it's cold, or whether that rock underfoot is sharp.

But scientists are now finding that the nerve-based conversation between the skin and the brain is far more complex than most people realize.

Take, for example, the seemingly simple act of scratching an itch. A child will scratch and scratch a rash to the point of drawing blood and feel relieved. But he'll cry if he scrapes his knee on the ground. What's the difference?

New research published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology may answer this question, as it reveals part of what's going on in our heads when we can't stop scratching and may even add to our understanding of how the skin helps define pain for the brain.

"They can't be divorced, itch and scratch," says Dr. Gil Yosipovitch, lead author of the study and a dermatologist at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, N.C. "Almost all two- and four-legged animals scratch and itch supposedly, even fish scratch themselves."

Scratching seems like such a natural reaction that it took a while before scientists figured out something more was going on between the skin and the brain.

The first hint for Yosipovitch was long-distance scratching. In a previous study, he showed scratching brings relief even if you miss the itch and scratch far away from the bite or rash.

"It's not just a local reaction," says Yosipovitch. "It's so important to understand there is an interaction between the skin and the brain."

To see this interaction in the brain, researchers hooked up 13 healthy people to MRI scan machines. Then they began to scratch the volunteers on their legs in 30-second intervals.

Simply scratching the skin even without an induced itch had a compulsive effect on the brain.

Yosipovitch found scratching activated areas of the brain associated with memory and pleasure, while at the same time it suppressed areas associated with the sensation of pain and emotions.