A role for Merkels | Science News

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A role for Merkels

Mysterious skin cells are required for sensing light touches

By
5:46pm, June 18, 2009
To listen to samples of Merkel cells and the signals they generate - click here.

Tender touches come courtesy of skin cells with an unromantic name: Merkel cells.

Scientists have debated the role of Merkel cells in the skin since they were first discovered in 1875. Now a study in the June 19 Science, led by researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, shows that the cells are essential for transmitting the sense of light touch, the kind of touch that helps distinguish between velvet and Velcro.

Though researchers know a lot about Merkel cells, no one has been able to say with certainty what they do. The cells are scattered sparsely around the body in clusters of 10 to 20, and only about 0.1 percent of skin cells are Merkel cells, says neuroscientist Ellen Lumpkin, a leader of the study along with Huda Zoghbi. The cells are more prevalent in touch-sensitive areas such as fingertips and lips, and have characteristics that

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