Understanding the Sensations of the Skin
Long before we learn how to speak or read an alphabet, we grasp and feel our way around the world, and listen to our bodies to discern between pleasure and pain. Skin is the largest organ of the human body, and houses receptors that perceive what we touch externally, but understanding the mechanisms that control and communicate the sense of touch and feel inside our bodies has long remained a bit of a mystery—though researchers have begun to crack the code over the past 10 years.
While cells have been understood to communicate with one another through chemical signaling, according to a recent Nature magazine article, scientists are hard at work to learn more about specialized pressure-sensitive proteins, called Piezo proteins, that act as mechanical signals that respond to physical sensors. Though very little is known about Piezo proteins, they are found in mammals—that includes us humans—and are believed to act as ion channels, opening up the pores of a cell’s membrane. Shaped like three-bladed pinwheels, Piezo proteins are uniquely structured and bear a passing, comical resemblance to fidget spinners. Researchers know little about how these specialized proteins function mechanically, but hypothesize that they are only part of a much larger, yet-to-be-discovered set of force sensors shared among many living things.
Nearly every tissue and cell type functions by way of touch, molecular neurobiologist Ardem Patapoutian explains, from the sensation of air filling our lungs, to our stomach or bladder feeling full. With more knowledge about the inner workings of Piezo proteins, scientists may be able to understand why some people are immune to certain diseases, or even find a targeted way to relieve chronic pain. As Patapoutian says, “We’ve just barely scraped the surface.”