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Nobel Prize awarded to U.S. scientists for research on how we sense of heat and touch


Two scientists who helped to explain how we sense temperature and touch have received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports that their research could lead to new treatments for pain and a better understanding of how we monitor our own bodies.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The work on temperature sensing was done by David Julius at the University of California San Francisco. In an interview with the Nobel website on Monday, Julius said his research came from a desire to understand something we rarely think about.


DAVID JULIUS: It's true for many of our senses but maybe more so for touch and pain. We experience it, but we take it for granted.

HAMILTON: So Julius spent years trying to understand how our body senses temperature. In a 2015 interview with NPR, he described his discovery of a molecule on nerve endings that responds to heat, including the heat we associate with hot foods like wasabi.

JULIUS: It's the molecule that allows us to feel that tingle, that pungent sensation from when we eat wasabi or put those kind of agents on our skin or anywhere where we have sensory nerve fibers.

HAMILTON: Julius said his team also found that the molecule that senses temperature plays a key role in pain.

JULIUS: I work in this area in part because I know there are a lot of people who suffer from chronic pain syndromes, millions of people in this country alone. And we probably need a lot more variety of drugs to treat different types of pain because mechanistically, it's not all going to be one thing.

HAMILTON: The research on touch was led by Ardem Patapoutian at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California. Patapoutian helped discover two related molecules that detect the pressure created when something comes in contact with our skin, or, for example, when our bladders fill up. And these molecules also play an important role in pain. Patapoutian says this is especially true for people with nerve diseases that make them very sensitive to any sort of pressure.

ARDEM PATAPOUTIAN: So you will experience this, for example, after an injury or sunburn, where just a touch on the shoulder or just wearing a shirt can become painful. And folks who suffer from neuropathic pain have this in a chronic state.

HAMILTON: The molecules that sense touch are also critical to something called proprioception. It's a sense that allows us to know the position and movement of our limbs and other body parts even when we can't see them. Diana Bautista of the University of California Berkeley says it's fitting that these two scientists shared the Nobel.

DIANA BAUTISTA: So together, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian unraveled one of the great mysteries in sensory biology - how do we experience touch and temperature?

HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AERIAL M'S "DAZED AND AWAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.

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