Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), New York, New York, have discovered how cells just beneath the skin surface enable us to feel fine details and textures. The findings advance understanding of touch sensation, and the researchers said it could lead to the design of prosthetic devices that restore touch sensation to people with amputations. The study was published online on April 6 in the journal Nature.
The researchers, led by Ellen Lumpkin, PhD, associate professor of somatosensory biology at CUMC, showed that Merkel cells, skin cells that can sense touch, work with the skin’s neurons to create the perception of fine details and textures. The study uses optogenetics-a new method that uses light as a signaling system to turn neurons on and off on demand-on skin cells to determine how they function and communicate. “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,” said Lumpkin.
The study was published in conjunction with a second study by the team done in collaboration with the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California. The companion study identifies a touch-activated molecule in skin cells, a gene called Piezo2, whose discovery, the researchers said, has the potential to significantly advance the field of touch perception.
Editor’s note: This story was adapted from materials provided by CUMC.