"We have realized the importance of touch"

Rebecca Böhme's touch research has attracted a great deal of media attention during the COVID-19 pandemic. When we suddenly had to keep our distance, we realized its value. - We now understand how important touch is to create contacts, feel close to others and for communication, she says.

Rebecca Böhme, Adam Enmalm and Reinoud Kaldewaij sit and monitor a scan at CMIV, Campus US. Rebecca Böhme (center), Adam Enmalm (left) and Reinoud Kaldewaij (right) are running a functional imaging scan of a person's brain and spinal cord simultaneously at CMIV, Campus US.

Since the start of the covid-19 pandemic, the interest in what touch means to us humans has gained more attention in the media. Not least considering the recommendation to keep distance from other people.

- Due to the strong recommendation on distancing, we have realized how important touch is to connect, feel close to people and for communication. That we now understand how much we need touch can at least in the long run have a certain advantage, says Rebecca.

Rebecca Böhme sits in the conference room during a lab meeting with her research group.Rebecca Böhme interacts with her research group colleagues during a lab meeting. Photo credit John KarlssonTouch is not just a sense used to interact with the world; touch-mediated closeness to fellow human beings also seems to be very important for a person's well-being, and Rebecca has noticed this herself.

- What I missed most during the pandemic is to be at work and have the opportunity to interact with my colleagues. To meet people in the coffee room over a cup of coffee and talk about what we work with. It is often in the informal situations that new ideas come up.

 

Touch as a research method

Already in the womb as a baby, you touch your own face or the uterine wall and can have an understanding of what you are and what the outside world is. It may be the first sense we actually use to differentiate between ourselves and others.

- Touch seems to be extremely important because it is one of our earliest senses. Therefore, I think we need to focus on touch to understand some very basic functions in humans.

In neuroscience, the focus has largely been on other senses, says Rebecca. The tactile (touch) sense has not received as much attention in research. Specifically with regard to the social aspect of touch.

- Touch, I think, is a very good method for studying how we perceive our body, the bodily self and the difference between oneself and others.

And this starting point makes the research stand out and be unique, according to Rebecca.

- I think it is a unique approach, especially when it comes to psychiatry. There are not many people who use touch to look at psychiatric populations and to see how they process touch.

 

The brain and spinal cord

Rebecca Böhme and her research group talk during a lab meeting in Tinnerbäckshuset.The research group, from the left: Rebecca Böhme (Principal Investigator), Paula Salamone (Postdoctoral Fellow), Morgan Frost-Karlsson (PhD Student), Adam Enmalm (Research Assistant), Reinoud Kaldewaij (Postdoctoral Fellow), Ashkan Shahbazi (Master student) and Annkathrin Böke (Master student). Photo credit John KarlssonRebecca's research group has recently started three projects. First, they look at what happens if they change the distinction between oneself and others, pharmacologically. Will this lead to a change in how we process this tactile distinction between oneself and others?

Problems with self-perception, such as recognizing one's own body's actions, are common in several psychiatric disorders. The research group has therefore chosen to take a closer look at people with schizophrenia in the second project.

In the third project, Rebecca and her group look at the brain and spinal cord at the same time to try to see if they can see the difference between self and others already at the spinal cord level.

- I think it is important to involve the whole body and the first step is to take a step down and look at the spinal cord, she says.

This was something that Rebecca saw in a research study she led during her time as a postdoctoral fellow. The results indicated that there is already a difference in the spinal cord when it comes to processing sensory impressions from one's own touch compared to touch by another person.

- We saw a lot more activity when touched by someone else and much less activity during self-touch. It was such a pronounced effect. I thought that because it is such a strong effect we can use it to look at population differences, different groups of people and compare them with each other.

In a couple of years, she hopes for exciting and interesting results from the three projects that are currently underway and that they will lead to new projects. Looking at two brains at the same time for example.

- I hope we can use hyper scanning. It is a method where we can look at two people interacting with each other, and we can scan the brains at the same time. In this way, we can go even further into the social aspect of human interaction.

The LiU legacy lives on

Rebecca Böhme has had connections to both Linköping and the academic world for a long time. Her parents lived in the city for six months when her father was a visiting professor of philosophy at the university. That was one of the reasons why the LiU ad on Researchgate caught her eye a couple of years ago.

- I knew Linköping thanks to my parents. We also visited the city when I was younger. My parents wanted to show me Linköping because they enjoyed their time here. It made me apply and of course I was also very interested in the subject.

In school, biology and chemistry were her favorite subjects and her interest in how the brain works began in her teens.

- I have been interested in the brain since I was around 15 years old. That's when I started reading popular science magazines. First about science in general and then I focused on the magazines that specifically targeted the brain and the psyche. After that I was sold on the brain.

With a philosopher as a father and a sociologist as a mother, the academic world and the scientific conversations were always present.

- Many major philosophical questions came up early and we read philosophical books together. My interest in studying, experimenting, and looking at the brain with scientific methods began in those conversations. 

But there is no clear influence or idol that can be attributed extra praise for Rebecca's success.

- I do not have a specific idol that shaped me to a great extent. I like to read everything from philosophy, psychology to biology. It is rather a mix of many different influences.

 

Facts about Rebecca Böhme

Age: 35 years
Family: Partner and two children
Lives: Brokind outside Linköping
Spare time: I like to be out in nature. I have four cats, six chickens and two horses. My family and the animals take up a lot of my free time.
Best thing about being a researcher: To work in a fantastic team and have the chance to interact with knowledgeable people. And to be able to follow my own passion and find answers to questions I am interested in.

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