MAR 12, 2024 9:44 AM PDT

Newly Discovered Thermoreceptor Responsible for Cold Perception

WRITTEN BY: Amielle Moreno

A recent study from the University of Michigan made a surprising discovery about how we feel at low temperatures. In a Nature Neuroscience article, researchers present the GluK2 glutamate receptor as the newest thermoreceptor, responsible for helping us feel cold.

Chilling Revelations

Professor Shawn Xu explains "Various studies have found the proteins that sense hot, warm, even cool temperatures" (via EurekAlert). For example, research has determined that while a mouse without the protein TRPM8 seems unaffected by cool temperatures down to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, this deficit to temperature differences returns below 15 degrees. "But," Professor Xu continues, "we've been unable to confirm what senses temperatures below about 60 degrees Fahrenheit."

man with frost on eyelashes

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In addition to its humble role as a glutamate-sensing chemoreceptor in the central nervous system, GluK2 has long possessed a hidden talent in the peripheral nervous system. The UM researchers discovered it's essential for sensing cold temperatures in the body's periphery. This finding sheds light on a previously unknown aspect of sensory perception, giving us a new and major sensory processing mechanism to explore.

Knocking out the Cold Protein

The study used mice lacking the GluK2 protein, called "knock out" (KO) mice. These GluK2 KO mice could feel sensations like touch, heat, and cool, but they were utterly oblivious to cold. Not only that, but the KOs didn't feel cold-related pain, a fine distinction critical to differentiate in somatosensory research. This highlights just how important GluK2 is for our and other animals' ability to sense and respond to environments lower than 60 degrees.

Pain Relief Potential

Further investigation revealed that GluK2-expressing neurons in the spine sense cold in our periphery. Professor Xu suggests that "this discovery of GluK2 as a cold sensor in mammals opens new paths to better understand why humans experience painful reactions to cold." The findings could be particularly relevant for chemotherapy patients, who often find cold temperatures uncomfortably painful. Understanding GluK2's role might pave the way for new treatments to alleviate this discomfort.

Ancient Roots of Cold Sensation

GluK2 isn't just a modern invention. It's been around for quite a while, with versions of it found in both vertebrate and invertebrate species. This suggests that GluK2 might be an ancient player in feeling the cold, hinting at a long evolutionary history of temperature sensation.

In Conclusion

The study's findings about GluK2's unexpected role in cold sensation add an intriguing twist to our understanding of how we experience temperature. As researchers continue to peel back the layers of this chilly mystery, GluK2 stands out as a fascinating new character in the story of sensory physiology.

Sources: Nature Neuroscience, EurekAlert

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
Amielle Moreno earned her doctorate in neuroscience from Emory University and has dedicated her career to science communication, news coverage, and academic writing/editing. She is a published researcher who has branched out to author articles for various science websites. She recently published an original research article detailing her findings on how sensory areas of the brain respond to social sound. When she's not writing or editing, you can find her spinning the latest neuroscience news into comedy gold, hosting her podcast "Miss Behavior Journal Club." This fortnightly humorous podcast features the latest in behavioral research. Her goal in life is to defend and discover scientific truths.
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