Article image

Understanding human touch at the molecular basis

Touch is an integral part of human interaction, enabling us to experience the world around us through hugs, handshakes, and every delicate maneuver we make.

For decades, scientists have sought to unravel the mysteries of how we perceive touch at the molecular level. Professor Gary Lewin, leading the Molecular Physiology of Somatic Sensation Lab at the Max Delbrück Center, has been at the forefront of this research.

“Although we’ve known that the ion channel Piezo2 is essential for touch perception, it’s clear that this protein alone doesn’t account for the full spectrum of touch sensation,” explains Lewin.

Elkin1: New human touch sensory pathfinder

Lewin’s dedication to understanding touch has recently led to a breakthrough discovery: a new ion channel named Elkin1, which plays a crucial role in our ability to perceive human touch.

This finding, published in the prestigious journal Science, marks only the second ion channel identified as critical to touch perception. Elkin1 appears to be directly involved in converting mechanical stimuli, like a light touch, into electrical signals that travel from the skin to the brain.

The journey to this discovery began unexpectedly while investigating a malignant melanoma cell line. The team observed that Elkin1 was essential for these cancer cells to sense mechanical forces. Intrigued by this finding, Lewin’s team hypothesized that Elkin1 might also contribute to touch sensation.

Decoding human touch: The science behind Elkin1

To explore this possibility, the researchers conducted experiments with genetically modified mice lacking the Elkin1 gene. When subjected to a simple test of touch sensitivity — brushing their hind paws with a cotton swab — these mice showed a significant reduction in response compared to normal mice.

“Typically, normal mice respond to the touch of the cotton swab 90% of the time. Mice without Elkin1, however, only reacted about half as often, indicating a diminished sense of touch,” Lewin notes.

This insensitivity was specific to touch, as the mice’s response to other stimuli, like temperature changes, remained unchanged.

At the neuronal level, Dr. Sampurna Chakrabarti, a member of Lewin’s team, employed the patch clamp method to measure the electrical activity of sensory neurons.

Huge potential in pain management

The results were striking. Approximately half of the neurons from mice lacking Elkin1 failed to respond to mechanical stimuli, indicating a critical role for Elkin1 in signal transmission from touch.

Further reinforcing the significance of Elkin1, collaborators at the University of Wollongong, led by Professor Mirella Dottori, found evidence suggesting Elkin1’s importance in human touch perception through experiments with human sensory neurons derived from stem cells.

Lewin’s research suggests that Elkin1 and Piezo2 may work together in conveying the sensation of touch. Moreover, there’s emerging evidence that Elkin1 could be involved in transmitting sensations of painful mechanical stimuli.

“If further research confirms this, we will have identified not just a second ion channel vital for touch perception but also a new target for treating chronic pain,” Lewin concludes.

The future and promise of Elkin1

In summary, the discovery of Elkin1 by Professor Gary Lewin and his team marks a monumental advancement in our understanding of human touch perception, offering new insights into the molecular mechanisms that allow us to interact with the world around us.

This important finding complements the known role of Piezo2 in touch sensation and provides new leads for developing innovative treatments for sensory disorders and chronic pain.

With Elkin1’s potential in pain management and its critical role in touch perception now coming to light, the research beckons further exploration that could revolutionize how we approach the treatment of pain and sensory dysfunctions, bringing us closer to enhancing the quality of life for millions.

The full study was published in the journal Science.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day