How we feel pain, pressure and heat
Pressure, touch, cold and heat are very different things. Nevertheless, we feel them partly with the help of the same molecules. This surprising discovery has now been honored with the Nobel Prize.
This year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine honors sensory physiologist David Julius and molecular biologist Ardem Patapoutian. You receive the award for researching the workings of two types of human sensory sensors - those that allow us to feel pain and pressure, and heat and cold.
Up until the turn of the millennium, it was still largely a mystery as to which receptors we use to perceive pressure, pain and temperature. Sensory physiologists knew how light or sound stimulate the responsible sensory cells in the eye and ear, which then generate electrical impulses and send them to the brain via nerve tracts, so that we can process optical or acoustic information. But where were the sensors for heat or pain?
David Julius, among others, asked himself this question. He was born in New York in 1955 and now works at the University of California in San Francisco. In the 1990s he set out to find human pain receptors. A chemical agent that reliably causes test subjects to suffer became his most important tool. It is the substance capsaicin, which is contained in red pepper, hot peppers and paprika and - depending on the dose - leaves a more or less painful burning sensation on the tongue…