US scientists win medicine Nobel for discovering nerve receptors that sense temperature and touch

US scientists win medicine Nobel for discovering nerve receptors that sense temperature and touch
L to R : David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian
4 Oct, 2021

The Nobel Prize in the field of physiology or medicine has been awarded to US Scientists David Julius and Ardem Potapoutian. The scientists discovered nerve receptors in the human body that are responsible for sensing temperature and touch. The discovery has already spurred research in medicine and could have overarching repercussions on other fields, including technology.

“Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us. In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived? This question has been solved by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates," the Nobel Jury said in a statement.

Further, the jury explained that how humans sense the environment around them is one of the “great mysteries facing humanity”. This includes things like how light is detected by the eyes, how sound waves affect our inner ears, and how different chemical compounds interact with receptors in our nose and mouth generating smell and taste. 

“Imagine walking barefoot across a lawn on a hot summer’s day. You can feel the heat of the sun, the caress of the wind, and the individual blades of grass underneath your feet. These impressions of temperature, touch and movement are essential for our adaptation to the constantly changing surroundings,” the Jury said.

To identify the nerve endings of the skin that identify heat, Dr. Julius used capsaicin, a chemical compound found in chilli peppers which induces a burning sensation. Dr. Patapoutian discovered the nerve receptors that respond to mechanical stimuli using pressure-sensitive cells.

Sensing temperature and mechanical stimuli can be very important for the tech industry, which has been looking at various ways to understand human movements and gestures. The discoveries by the two nobel laureates provide more data for technology companies more information on the human body, and help them create computer code to replicate how it works.

For instance, in March this year, social media giant Facebook said it had developed prototype devices that are worn on the wrist, like a watch, and can read electrical signals sent by the brain through our neurons.