A study published in Nature highlights how a team of Columbia University Medical Center researchers, led by Ellen Lumpkin, PhD, associate professor of somatosensory biology, have uncovered the mechanisms behind touch; i.e., how humans feel details and textures. According to a university report, this study used a new optogenetic method based on light signaling to turn neurons in skin cells on and off and identify how they communicate. The experiments are reportedly the first direct proof that Merkel skin cells can code touch into neural signals and transmit information to the brain.
These findings not only advance the understanding of touch, but also may lead to research into the loss of sensitive-touch perception. In the future, these findings could inform the design of new “smart” prosthetics that restore touch sensation to limb amputees, as well as introduce new targets for treating skin diseases such as chronic itch.
This study was published in conjunction with a second study done in collaboration with the Scripps Research Institute. The companion study identifies a touch-activated molecule in skin cells, a gene called Piezo2, whose discovery has the potential to significantly advance the field of touch perception. According to the university report, the same optogenetic techniques applied to Merkel cells could be applied to other skin cells to answer these questions.