Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Secrets of gentle touch revealed

10.12.2012
In fruit flies, UCSF researchers uncover the molecular basis of our most mysterious physical sense

Stroke the soft body of a newborn fruit fly larva ever-so-gently with a freshly plucked eyelash, and it will respond to the tickle by altering its movement—an observation that has helped scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) uncover the molecular basis of gentle touch, one of the most fundamental but least well understood of our senses.

Our ability to sense gentle touch is known to develop early and to remain ever-present in our lives, from the first loving caresses our mothers lavish on us as newborns to the fading tingle we feel as our lives slip away. But until now, scientists have not known exactly how humans and other organisms perceive such sensations.

In an article published online this week in the journal Nature, the UCSF team has identified the exact subset of nerve cells responsible for communicating gentle touch to the brains of Drosophila larvae—called class III neurons. They also uncovered a particular protein called NOMPC, which is found abundantly at the spiky ends of the nerves and appears to be critical for sensing gentle touch in flies.

Without this key molecule, the team discovered, flies are insensitive to any amount of eyelash stroking, and if NOMPC is inserted into neurons that cannot sense gentle touch, those neurons gain the ability to do so.

"NOMPC is sufficient to confer sensitivity to gentle touch," said Yuh Nung Jan, PhD, a professor of physiology, biochemistry and biophysics and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at UCSF. Jan led the study with his wife Lily Jan, PhD, who is also a UCSF professor and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

The work sheds light on a poorly understood yet fundamental sense through which humans experience the world and derive pleasure and comfort.

Jan added that while the new work reveals much, many unanswered questions remain, including the exact mechanism through which NOMPC detects mechanical force and the identity of the analogous human molecules that confer gentle touch sensitivity in people.

The discovery is a good example of basic brain research paving the way toward answering such questions. UCSF is a world leader in the neurosciences, carrying out research that spans the spectrum from fundamental questions of how the brain works to the clinical development of new drugs and precision tools to address brain diseases; educating the next generation of neuroscientists, neurologists and neurosurgeons; and offering excellent patient care for neurological diseases.

Why is Touch Still Such a Mystery?

Though it is fundamental to our experience of the world, our sense of gentle touch has been the least well understood of our senses scientifically, because, unlike with vision or taste, scientists have not known the identity of the molecules that mediate it.

Scientists generally feel that, like those other senses, the sense of touch is governed by peripheral nerve fibers stretching from the spine to nerve endings all over the body. Special molecules in these nerve endings detect the mechanical movement of the skin surrounding them when it is touched, and they respond by opening and allowing ions to rush in. The nerve cell registers this response, and if the signal is strong enough, it will fire, signaling the gentle touch to the brain.

What has been missing from the picture, however, are the details of this process. The new finding is a milestone in that it defines the exact nerves and uncovers the identity of the NOMPC channel, one of the major molecular players involved—at least in flies.

Jan and his colleagues made this discovery through an unusual route. They were looking at the basic physiology of the developing fruit fly, examining how class III neurons develop in larvae. They noticed that when these cells developed in the insects, their nerve endings would always become branches into spiky "dendrites."

Wanting to know what these neurons are responsible for, they examined them closely and found the protein NOMPC was abundant at the spiky ends. They then examined a fly genetically engineered to have a non-functioning form of NOMPC and showed that it was insensitive to gentle touch. They also showed that they could induce touch sensitivity in neurons that do not normally respond to gentle touch by inserting copies of the NOMPC protein into them.

The article, "Drosophila NOMPC is a mechanotransduction channel subunit for gentle-touch sensation" is authored by Zhiqiang Yan, Wei Zhang, Ye He, David Gorczyca, Yang Xiang, Li E. Cheng, Shan Meltzer, Lily Yeh Jan and Yuh Nung Jan. It appears as an Advanced Online Publication by the journal Nature on December 9, 2012.

This work was funded by the National Institutes of Health via grant #R37NS040929 and #5R01MH084234; by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and through two Long-Term Fellowships from the Human Frontier Science Program.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.

Jason Socrates Bardi | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.ucsf.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Closing the carbon loop
08.12.2016 | University of Pittsburgh

nachricht Newly discovered bacteria-binding protein in the intestine
08.12.2016 | University of Gothenburg

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Significantly more productivity in USP lasers

In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.

Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...

Im Focus: Shape matters when light meets atom

Mapping the interaction of a single atom with a single photon may inform design of quantum devices

Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

Im Focus: MADMAX: Max Planck Institute for Physics takes up axion research

The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.

The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Closing the carbon loop

08.12.2016 | Life Sciences

Applicability of dynamic facilitation theory to binary hard disk systems

08.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

Scientists track chemical and structural evolution of catalytic nanoparticles in 3-D

08.12.2016 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>