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Researchers Identify Key Cells That Are Responsible For Touch Sensation

Update Date: Apr 07, 2014 01:22 PM EDT

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center have reportedly solved an age-old mystery of touch explaining how cells beneath the skin surface enable use to feel details and other textures. 

The study has used the technique called optogenetics that uses light as a signaling system to turn neurons on and off on demand. Optogenetics was used on skin cells to determine how they functioned and communicated.

According to researchers, skin cells called Merkel cells can sense touch. Merkel cells also work virtually hand in glove with the skin's neurons to create what we perceive as fine details and textures.

"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 lead researcher Ellen Lumpkin, PhD, associate professor of somatosensory biology in a press release.

"No one has tested whether the loss of Merkel cells causes loss of function with aging-it could be a coincidence-but it's a question we're interested in pursuing."

Researchers believe that in future the research would be able to inform the design of new 'smart' prosthetics that restores touch sensation to limb amputees. It could be also used for introducing new targets for treating skin diseases.

"The new findings should open up the field of skin biology and reveal how sensations are initiated," Dr. Lumpkin said.

"It's an exciting time in our field because there are still big questions to answer, and the tools of modern neuroscience give us a way to tackle them," she added in the press release.

The study has been published in the journal Nature.

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