Researchers from Columbia University Medical Center used optogenetics, a method that uses light as a signaling system to turn neurons on and off on demand, to show that Merkel cells in the skin can sense touch.
Their study results, published in Nature, found Merkel cells can sense touch and communicate with the skin’s neurons to create the perception of fine details and textures. The findings describe a key advance in understanding touch sensation, and may also stimulate research into loss of sensitive-touch perception. Future research could help design prostheses that restore touch sensation to limb amputees.
“These experiments are the first direct proof that Merkel cells can encode touch into neural signals that transmit information to the brain about the objects in the world around us,” Ellen Lumpkin, PhD, lead researcher and associate professor of somatosensory biology at Columbia University Medical Center, stated in a press release.
The study was published in conjunction with a second study by the team done in collaboration with the Scripps Research Institute. The companion study identified a touch-activated molecule in skin cells, a gene called Piezo2.
“The new findings would open up the field of skin biology and reveal how sensations are initiated,” Lumpkin stated.
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Disclosures: Lumpkin has no relevant financial disclosures.