The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly on Monday to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian “for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.”
Their work sheds light on how to reduce chronic and acute pain associated with a range of diseases, trauma and their treatments.
“Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us,” the Nobel committee said in a news release. “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, the committee said, has now been solved.
Why did they win?
The pair made breakthrough discoveries that began intense research activities that in turn led to a rapid increase in our understanding of how our nervous system senses heat, cold and mechanical stimuli. The laureates identified critical missing links in our understanding of the complex interplay between our senses and the environment.
Specifically, Mr. Julius utilized capsaicin, a pungent compound from chili peppers that induces a burning sensation, to identify a sensor in the nerve endings of the skin that responds to heat.
Mr. Patapoutian used pressure-sensitive cells to discover a novel class of sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli in the skin and internal organs.
Why is the work important?
The Nobel committee said the two scientists helped answer one of the most profound questions about the human condition: How do we sense our environment?
“The mechanisms underlying our senses have triggered our curiosity for thousands of years, for example, 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,” the committee wrote.
In the 17th century, the philosopher René Descartes envisioned threads connecting different parts of the skin with the brain. In that way, when a flame touches the foot, a signal is sent to the brain. Subsequent research found that sensory neurons register changes in our environment.
In 1944, Joseph Erlanger and Herbert Gasser received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of different types of sensory nerve fibers that react to distinct stimuli, for example, in the responses to painful and nonpainful touch.
But a fundamental question has remained. How are temperature and mechanical stimuli…