Merkel cells are essential for light-touch responses.

June 19, 2009


American Association for the Advancement of Science

Publication Date

June 19, 2009


Maricich SM, Wellnitz SA, Nelson AM, Lesniak DR, Gerling GJ, Lumpkin EA, Zoghbi HY Summary

Although Friedrich Merkel believed that the direct connection of these cells to nerves suggested they were ‘touch cells’, it took over 120 years for science to prove this. Studies in which normal Merkel cells were deleted in mice showed that those mice lost normal skin sensation.


The peripheral nervous system detects different somatosensory stimuli, including pain, temperature, and touch. Merkel cell-neurite complexes are touch receptors composed of sensory afferents and Merkel cells. The role that Merkel cells play in light-touch responses has been the center of controversy for over 100 years. We used Cre-loxP technology to conditionally delete the transcription factor Atoh1 from the body skin and foot pads of mice. Merkel cells are absent from these areas in Atoh1(CKO) animals. Ex vivo skin/nerve preparations from Atoh1(CKO) animals demonstrate complete loss of the characteristic neurophysiologic responses normally mediated by Merkel cell-neurite complexes. Merkel cells are, therefore, required for the proper encoding of Merkel receptor responses, suggesting that these cells form an indispensible part of the somatosensory system.

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