The human brain is like a general in a bunker. Floating in its bubble of cerebrospinal fluid, it has no direct window to the outside world, so the only way for the brain to observe, comprehend, and order the body into action is to rely on information it receives. This information comes to it through a sophisticated system of sensory neurons that connect the brain to organs like the eye, ear, nose, and mouth.
In recent years, biologists and neuroscientists have been trying to discover the basic molecules and mechanisms that underlie this complicated communication system that is our senses, and one group of researchers from The Scripps Research Institute and the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF), has been making headway in trying to understand those that mediate our sense of touch.
Touch is perhaps the most fundamental of our five senses because it works through our largest organ, the skin. Through the skin we can detect temperature, texture, and understand both pleasure and pain. A few years ago, the Scripps Research and GNF team, which was led by Scripps Research Assistant Professor Ardem Patapoutian, was the first to clone a protein (TRPV3) that the researchers believed was involved in our ability to sense and detect warm temperature. But while temperature-gated action of TRPV3 suggested the protein might be communicating temperature to the brain, its distribution raised some doubts. Despite expectations that temperature sensors be present in sensory neurons innervating the skin, TRPV3 protein was found in actual skin cells (keratinocytes) and not in the neurons.
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