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Nobel for deciphering the science of Touch and Temperature


Two U.S.-based scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine on October 4 2021 for their discovery of the receptors that allow humans to feel temperature and touch.


Prelims, GS-III: Science and Technology (Important developments in science and technology and their application in daily life)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. About the Nobel Laureates and their discovery
  2. Applications of their discovery

About the Nobel Laureates and their discovery

  • Two scientists working independently in the United States, made a series of discoveries in the late 1990s and early 2000s to figure out the touch detectors in our body and the mechanism through which they communicate with the nervous system to identify and respond to a particular touch.
  • They discovered the molecular sensors in the human body that are sensitive to heat, and to mechanical pressure, and make us “feel” hot or cold, or the touch of a sharp object on our skin.
  • Prof David Julius’s breakthrough came from investigating the burning pain we feel from eating a hot chilli pepper which led to the discovery of the specific type of receptor (a part of our cells that detects the world around them) that responded to capsaicin – this discovery led to a flurry of other temperature-sensors being discovered.
  • Both David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian identified a new receptor called TRPM8, a receptor that is activated by cold -this new receptor is specifically expressed in a subset of pain-and-temperature-sensing neurons.
  • Ardem Patapoutian further studied if these receptors can be activated by mechanical stimuli – and they identified a single gene, which when silenced made the cells insensitive to the poking.

Applications of their discovery

  • This knowledge [of the TRPV1, TRPM8 and Piezo channels] is being used to develop treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain.
  • Decoding the neuroscience of pain can help develop new targets for pain therapy.
  • The new laureates’ work might help design new pain medications – this may lead us to identify new compounds that are effective in treating pain that don’t come with the devastating impact of opioids.
  • Understanding how the body detects changes in pressure could eventually lead to drugs for heart disease, if scientists can figure out how to alleviate pressure on blood vessels and other organs.

-Source: The Hindu

December 2023