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Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Mystery of Touch

A Small Breakthrough in the Mystery of Touch

By Belinda Luscombe

Dec. 12, 2012   

The sense of touch is more of a mystery than that of hearing, smell, sight or taste. Perhaps that’s why more songs have been written about it (“Smell Me in the Morning” just doesn’t have the same ring.) But now scientists have unlocked one secret about how it works using only a fruit fly and an eyelash.

Researchers at the University of California in San Francisco have  identified the precise subset of nerve cells responsible for transmitting gentle touch to the brains of Drosophila, or fruit fly,  larvae. They’re called class III neurons. At the spiky end of these nerve cells one particular protein, NOMPC, apparently dominates. This molecule appears to be critical in communicating the type of touch a nerve senses.

Tactile perception has long been the most complicated of the senses to study, yet it’s a strong candidate for being our most important sense. Research into orphans suggests that babies who are never touched can never really form bonds with other humans. And even before birth, before a fetus responds to visual or auditory stimuli, he or she responds to touch. Ultrasounds show apparently insensate little creatures squirming away from pokes to the belly or needles taking a sample of amniotic fluid.

Gentle touch, or stroking, is particularly important. Doctors now know that premature babies need to be gently caressed to thrive,  despite their fragility. Researchers have suggested that everything from grooming behaviors among other primates to the the popularity of face creams among ours can be traced to living beings’ need for a tender touch.  Michelangelo, after all, did not paint God hearing Adam into being on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. (...)

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