Incorporated into everything from pain-relieving creams to after-dinner mints, menthol elicits a pleasant cooling sensation on the skin or tongue. As a result, researchers have suspected that the chemical activates the same sensory receptors on cells that alert animals to cool temperatures.
Two research teams now confirm this hypothesis by independently reporting the discovery of a single cell-surface protein that enables sensory nerves to respond to both menthol and coldness. "This is the first cold receptor," says Ardem Patapoutian of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.
He and his colleagues describe their discovery in an upcoming issue of Cell. The second research group, headed by David Julius of the University of California, San Francisco, will publish a similar report in an upcoming issue of Nature.