That is why sensory perception research was awarded the Nobel Prize


On Monday, October 4th, 2021, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm announced the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The prize was jointly awarded to physiologist David Julius and molecular biologist and neuroscientist Ardem Patapoutian. The men were recognized for their research into human sensory perception; each had independently discovered the mechanisms by which the human body reacts to touch and temperature.

The importance of the five senses cannot be underestimated. They are media through which we experience and understand the world around us by converting external stimuli into electrical signals that our brain translates into visual, sound, smell, touch and taste sensations. How exactly this transformation takes place at the molecular level, however, has long been unclear and remains one of the elusive questions of modern science to this day.

Pain and pressure receptors are embedded in the nervous system and found throughout the body, making them incredibly difficult to study

Hence, the Academy rarely fails to highlight researchers who help solve this lingering mystery. Georg von Békésy, Nobel Prize winner 1961, discovered how our eardrum converts pressure waves into vibrations. Just six years later, Ragnar Granit, Halden Keffer Hartline and George Wald received the same award for their “discoveries about the physiological and chemical visual processes in the eye”.

Dr. Julius and Dr. Patapoutian builds on and goes beyond the work of its predecessors. Compared to other senses – the mechanics of which are tied to specific organs – pain and pressure receptors are embedded in the nervous system and found throughout the body, making them incredibly difficult to explore. “It was the last major sensory system to be subjected to molecular analysis,” said Dr. Julius on Monday the press to justify his award ceremony.

David Julius: Why do spicy foods taste spicy?

Dr. Julius was born in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn in 1955 to Ashkenazi Jewish descent. At a young age he made the decision to become a researcher, earned a bachelor’s degree from MIT and a PhD from the University of California, Berkely. He completed his education with a postdoctoral program at Columbia University, where studies of serotonin and LSD fueled interest in the processing and response of the human body to the outside world.

Dr. Julius, currently chairman of the Department of Physiology at the University of California at San Francisco, made his award-winning discovery back in 1997. That year his research team created a library of neural pathways activated by capsaicin, a compound that makes spicy foods like peppers Consumption gives a burning sensation. On the way there, Dr. Julius TRPV1, the ion channel that acts as our primary capsaicin receptor.

Homology model of the TRPV1 ion channel (Source: Boghog2 / Wikipedia)

To the discovery of Dr. Really paying tribute to Julius may need a bit of context. If you don’t build tolerance, eating spicy foods is painful. Bell peppers and wasabi give a strange feeling that your mouth is on fire, and researchers just couldn’t figure out why for a long time. Seeing no immediate benefit from this response, they speculated that it must be the remnant of a distant evolutionary adaptation.

Dr. Julius answered this question by showing us what TRPV1 is responsible for: protecting our bodies from high temperatures. The channel not only responds to capsaicin, but also to temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. TRPV1 is also effective against injury or sunburn, which makes damaged tissue hot to the touch. In all cases, the channel sends out a signal that our brain converts into the sensation of warmth.

Ardem Patapoutian: How do people feel?

The human body is an infinitely complex ecosystem. The ultimate goal of molecular analysis is to find out how this ecosystem works by assessing the purpose of each gene and the proteins it codes for. Given the assumption that people have between 20,000 and 25,000 of these, this is no easy task. There are many ways to do this, and each researcher has a different approach.

While Dr. Julius put together an entire genetic library, Dr. Patapoutian by trial and error. He isolated cells in a Petri dish and poked them with a microscopic pipette so that he and his colleagues inactivated one gene after the other. When the cells stopped responding to this disorder, they knew they had found the channel responsible for sensing and responding to touch.

Schematic representation of a Piezo1 channel (Source: SimonYel / Wikipedia)

Dr. Patapoutian – who was born in Beirut and currently works at Scripps Research, a nonprofit biomedical research facility – named these channels Piezo1 and Piezo2, after the Greek word for pressure, which, it turns out, is all that touch really is. After Dr. Patapoutian finally identified these previously unknown channels, paving the way for subsequent studies. In recent years, other researchers have shown that these channels also regulate other physiological processes, such as knowing that our bladder is full.

“Machano sensation is how cells use violence to communicate with one another,” explained Dr. Patapoutian in a press release posted on the Scripps website. “We didn’t know how important pressure sensors are for the body until we found them for the first time (…) We’re talking about a key that unlocks a door that opens to a room. These receptors are the key to understanding biology and disease. “

Posts and questions

Nobel Prize winners should be judged not only on the content of their studies, but also on the potential of those studies for future research. Dr. Julius and Dr. Like the awardees before them, Patapoutian paved the way for numerous studies. After Dr. Julius had identified one of the channels that caused us pain in the form of burning temperatures, pharmaceutical companies were trying to create a new generation of non-opioid pain relievers that worked by blocking those channels.

Unfortunately, these efforts were unsuccessful. It turns out that TRPV1 also plays a key role in regulating our body temperature during fever. Blocking these channels could not only prove harmful, but also lead to other channels in our nervous system becoming activated and overcompensated. In addition, as Dr. Julius stated one purpose: to alert us to external threats. Consequently, lifting the pain would deprive us of one of our senses and make us partially blind to the world around us.

Since these pharmaceutical companies were unable to use Dr. Turning Julius into tangible results is tempting to conclude that his research is not as important as the Nobel Committee would have us believe. But while the committee has made some controversial decisions in the past, particularly in the peace and literature categories, its choices in science tend to be a little more informed. Breakthroughs don’t happen in a day, after all. Instead, our scientific understanding advances step by step, with today’s achievements relying heavily on the discoveries of yesterday’s researchers.

This article originally appeared on our sister site Big Think. Read the original article Here.


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