The cortical system underlying perceptual ability to localize tactile and noxious cutaneous stimuli in humans is still incompletely understood. We used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to transiently interfere with the function of the parietal cortex, at different times after the beginning of noxious or non-noxious mechanical stimulation of the hairy skin overlying the dorsal surface of the first metacarpal of the contralateral hand. Peripheral stimuli consisted of rounded (1 mm diameter) or sharp (0.2 mm) metal tips; skin contact lasted on average 242 ms (noxious) and 228 ms (non-noxious). Brief (80 ms, 25 Hz) TMS trains, given at 150 ms after the onset of cutaneous stimulation, significantly impaired subjects’ ability in localizing non-nociceptive, tactile input, an effect which was not observed when TMS was applied at 300 ms after cutaneous stimulation. In contrast, brief TMS trains given at 300 ms after the onset of cutaneous stimulation significantly impaired subjects’ ability in localizing nociceptive input, an effect which was not observed when TMS was applied at 150 ms after cutaneous stimulation. No impairment in stimulus detection was found in comparison with control sham TMS.
The timing of parietal TMS interference with the ability to localize tactile and painful stimuli is compatible with known time differences in the arrival of non-noxious and noxious information in the postcentral gyrus. On these grounds, our findings support the existence of overlapping cortical populations in the contralateral parietal lobe, exerting a role in spatial discriminative aspects of touch and mechanically induced pain.