This is the first in a three part series introducing the science of touch sensation.
1) The molecular basis of touch sensation – Learning about touch sensation from an unlikely creature, the star-nosed mole
2) Engineering touch sensation for robotics and prosthetics
3) Communicating emotion through touch
There’s a big difference between abruptly bumping into a stranger and being touched gently by someone we love. We use touch to interact and communicate with other people, as well as to sense the physical objects and forces within our world each day. We encounter a wide variety of different sensations, and need to be able to distinguish between them. But how do we actually sense mechanical forces on our skin? This is an important and long-standing question in neuroscience, and Professor Diana Bautista and members of her lab at UC Berkeley are working to find an answer.
In humans and other animals, nerve cells (called neurons) extend out from the brain and the spinal cord, the major processing regions of the nervous system, to the rest of the body. In order to sense signals at your fingertips and toes, neurons must send out projections that travel the entire length of your arm or leg. Many types of sensory neurons extend into the skin, where they detect different types of stimuli, including touch, temperature, and pain.
Neuroscientists have worked out the mechanism by which neurons respond to pain by using a natural compound that produces painful sensations.
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