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Pernicious Itch Inspiring a Computer Program
from Matt

Hello there, I'm delighted to have read the articles on your site. I like your practical attitude and humor. I haven't got psoriasis, I've got severe eczema, and have had it since I was born (29 years ago). In general I can manage it and it is only when the weather changes or I get stressed without realizing it that it takes hold again.

Of course what pisses me off most about having genetically crappy skin is all the things I have to do to sort it out — the strange rituals one has to perform just to lead a normal life. So what I tend to do is think f**k it and continue as if it didn't exist, which behavior usually results in scratching my skin off and thereby sending me to hell once more.

What I'd like to find out is exactly what causes that pernicious itching (the sort that to scratch feels orgasmic — at first). Apart from solid mental control of nearly Zen-like proportions ('calm NOW') I know of no effective way to kill off the itching. The problem is that, even to exercise that Zen-like control, one needs to be awake. While asleep or mentally exhausted the itch can persist and we scratch without thinking. Therefore I'd like to know the mechanism behind the stimulus (the itch). Therein will be the key to staving off the response (the scratching).

To this end I'm trying to write a simulation of skin, in the form of a cellular automatum [sic], to see if there's anything to learn about how local communities of skin and nerve cells, sebaceous glands, blood vessels etc. communicate and evolve over time. My motivation comes partially from the desire to write the program (I'm a programmer) and also because I can find no research on how the skin really works beyond the inanimate diagrams and models one easily locates (I'm not a brilliant researcher). Besides, theoretically I think it would be a fun project. If you have any leads or just want to tell me to "stop scratching" then email me. -Matt


Ed’s Response: I tried to find something on the order of How Skin Works 101 on the Internet and got nowhere. I feel about as helpless as when my four year old grand-son asked me why he can’t have a baby in his tummy.

Here’s a question: What’s more complex, the metastasis of skin or the formation of the universe? I ask it because I have actually seen computer models of the formation of the universe that were programmed at least in part by high school students (granted, they were using a super computer). So getting my mind wrapped around the concept of a computer model for skin metastasis wasn’t that difficult. Exciting, actually.

I think you should quit scratching and get on with it. A practicing derm or dermatology professor at a medical school might be your best source for reference material. -Ed

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