New insights into the molecules and neurons responsible for the sense of touch

2021

Challenge

Neurons connected to the skin provide humans and other animals with important information about their environment. Understanding how stimuli such as temperature and various kinds of touch are discerned and transmitted to the central nervous system remains a fundamental challenge.

Advance

IRP senior investigator Nick Ryba , Ph.D., and his collaborators at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) used a combination of single cell RNA-sequencing, which defines neurons based on the activity of hundreds of genes, and in vivo functional imaging, which characterizes groups of neurons according to their firing, to study nerve cells’ responses to a variety of touch-based stimuli. They found that the neurons that respond to each type of stimulus have a unique signature of gene activity. They also found that a protein called Piezo2, which allows the flow of ions into neurons to cause them to fire, is involved in transforming all forms of touch-related stimuli into electric signals that can be sent to the brain.

Impact

Thanks to this research, we now have a much better understanding of how touch-based stimuli are processed by the nervous system. Expanding this experimental approach to other stimuli and locations within the peripheral nervous system will help to provide a fuller picture of how the somatosensory system represents useful information. Moreover, extending this experimental strategy to the central nervous system, composed of the brain and spinal cord, may help elucidate details of how ensembles of neurons function to encode memories, emotions, and choices, allowing scientists to gain insight into disorders such as Alzheimers’ disease and Huntington’s disease.

Publications

von Buchholtz LJ, Ghitani N, Lam RM, Licholai JA, Chesler AT, Ryba NJP. (2021). Decoding Cellular Mechanisms for Mechanosensory Discrimination. Neuron. Jan 20;109(2):285-298.e5. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2020.10.028.

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