60-Second Science

The Secret Behind Humans' Ability To Sense Tiny Temperature Changes

Work in cell cultures has found that the four ion channels responsible for temperature sensing can reassemble to effectively form hundreds of channels, possibly the key to humans' keen temperature sensing abilities.

Ever wonder how you can feel a tiny change in the temperature, maybe only a degree?  Researchers have.  Feeling heat involves four different types of ion channels.  These are little pores on the surface of cells, made of proteins.  They open and close, regulating the flow of charged particles, creating voltage differences—it all works out to make you feel warmth.  But researchers couldn’t understand how we can recognize tiny temperature changes with only four sensors.   

Now, new research just published in the journal of General Physiology has shed some light on the heat.  Scientists at UC Davis found that pieces of the four heat-related ion channels can reassemble to effectively form additional temporary channels.  Possibly hundreds of them.  The work was done in cell cultures, so it needs to be confirmed in actual organisms.  But all those additional channels could explain our temperature sensitivity.  And because the cells with these ion channels also are involved in pain sensation, the work may be useful in future pain treatment research, too.

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