Cookies on this website
We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Continue' we will assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you will not see this message again. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

Most people can’t tell their toes apart without looking. Some healthy people can 'lose' a toe if their eyes are closed. While most of us would assume we’ve got a pretty good idea of where the various parts of our body are, research from Oxford University suggests we may have a problem telling our toes apart – with implications for the way our brains see our bodies.

A paper in the journal Perception reports an experiment in which people were asked to close their eyes. The testers then gently prodded each toe or each finger and asked the people to identify which digit was being stimulated.

Dr Nela Cicmil from Oxford’s Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics said: ‘The results confirmed some earlier research that suggested people could find it harder to distinguish between their toes than their fingers. People could correctly identify the finger being stimulated in 99 per cent of cases. For the big and little toes, that fell to 94 per cent. But for the middle toes, it was 57, 60 and 79 per cent.  

‘The key issue was distinguishing between the second and third toes [the toes next to the big toe].’

People's ability to correctly identify their toes varied. Everyone tested experienced some confusion with no one able to identify the correct toe all the time. When toes were misidentified, a phenomenon known as ‘agnosia’, there was also a clear pattern. The second toe was believed to the third. The third toe was incorrectly identified as the fourth. The issue was even more noticeable when the non-dominant foot was tested (ie the left foot for a right-handed person and vice versa). People were more likely experience agnosia for their non-dominant foot than for their dominant one.

Unexpectedly, just under half of participants also reported a sense that one of their toes was missing.

Nela Cicmil said: ‘We do know of medical conditions that can cause people to lose the sense of one of their digits. The people being tested here were healthy, yet some were reporting the feeling of a missing toe.

‘We have suggested a model in which rather than sensing each toe separately, the brain just sees five blocks. The gaps between the actual toes do not correspond to the boundaries of those blocks.’

The team say that the research has application in checking for brain damage, as errors in identifying toes could be normal. Doctors should expect some errors and need to compare the error rare to that seen in healthy people to check that it is worse than the general population. The results could also help us understand better conditions that result in agnosia or other misperceptions of our own body, such as in anorexia nervosa.

 

Source: University of Oxford website

Similar stories

Cortex may regulate the need for sleep

Why we sleep, and the processes behind sleep, are amongst the most interesting questions in modern neuroscience. Researchers at the University of Oxford, including DPAG's Molnár and Vyazovskiy group scientists, have now uncovered a new target for sleep investigations within the mammalian brain – the cerebral cortex. The paper, first authored by Dr Lukas Krone, was published today in Nature Neuroscience.

Reducing fat in the diabetic heart could improve recovery from heart attack

New research from the Heather Group has shown that in type 2 diabetes an overload of lipids reduces the heart’s ability to generate energy during a heart attack, decreasing chances of recovery.

The brain’s one-sided teaching signals

A new study by the Lak group reveals a novel facet of dopamine signalling during visual decision making.

Fellowship awarded to Huriye Atilgan to enhance our understanding of value-based decision-making

Congratulations are in order for Postdoctoral Research Scientist Dr Huriye Atilgan who has been awarded a prestigious Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship funded by the Wellcome Trust.

The future of stroke treatment

A team of international collaborators including DPAG's Dr Mootaz Salman has been researching a promising new therapeutic for the treatment of strokes and other brain injuries.