The somatosensory system constantly updates the brain about the forces, temperatures and chemicals that bombard the body. The goal of our research is to discover molecular mechanisms that encode these diverse environmental stimuli into neural signals. Our primary focus is to elucidate force transduction mechanisms that initiate the senses of touch and pain.
Although Aristotle designated it as one of five basic senses, touch is a complex sense that encompasses numerous modalities, such as pressure, hair movements and vibration. Correspondingly, the touch-sensitive neurons that tile the body's surface display a remarkable array of force sensitivities, neural outputs and cellular morphologies. Although forward genetic screens have identified numerous essential molecules in invertebrate mechanosensory neurons, we are only now beginning to uncover molecular players that govern the unique functions of mammalian touch receptors.
We have developed in vitro and in vivo tools to discover the basis of sensory transduction in a light touch receptor, the Merkel cell-neurite complex. These touch receptors innervate highly sensitive areas such as fingertips, where they encode spatial features of objects. We use neurophysiological techniques to directly observe how individual, living touch receptors respond to force. We also use molecular approaches and mouse genetics to identify molecules that allow mechanoreceptor cells to sense force.