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Concept: Sensory neuron


In mammals, odorants are detected by a large family of receptors that are each expressed in just a small subset of olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs). Here we describe a strain of transgenic mice engineered to express an octanal receptor in almost all OSNs. Remarkably, octanal triggered a striking and involuntary phenotype in these animals, with passive exposure regularly inducing seizures. Octanal exposure invariably resulted in widespread activation of OSNs but interestingly seizures only occurred in 30-40% of trials. We hypothesized that this reflects the need for the olfactory system to filter strong but slowly-changing backgrounds from salient signals. Therefore we used an olfactometer to control octanal delivery and demonstrated suppression of responses whenever this odorant is delivered slowly. By contrast, rapid exposure of the mice to octanal induced seizure in every trial. Our results expose new details of olfactory processing and provide a robust and non-invasive platform for studying epilepsy.

Concepts: Sensory system, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfaction, Epilepsy, Olfactory receptor, Seizure, Odor, Sensory neuron


Deployments of tear gas and pepper spray have rapidly increased worldwide. Large amounts of tear gas have been used in densely populated cities, including Cairo, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Manama (Bahrain), and Hong Kong. In the United States, tear gas was used extensively during recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Whereas tear gas deployment systems have rapidly improved-with aerial drone systems tested and requested by law enforcement-epidemiological and mechanistic research have lagged behind and have received little attention. Case studies and recent epidemiological studies revealed that tear gas agents can cause lung, cutaneous, and ocular injuries, with individuals affected by chronic morbidities at high risk for complications. Mechanistic studies identified the ion channels TRPV1 and TRPA1 as targets of capsaicin in pepper spray, and of the tear gas agents chloroacetophenone, CS, and CR. TRPV1 and TRPA1 localize to pain-sensing peripheral sensory neurons and have been linked to acute and chronic pain, cough, asthma, lung injury, dermatitis, itch, and neurodegeneration. In animal models, transient receptor potential inhibitors show promising effects as potential countermeasures against tear gas injuries. On the basis of the available data, a reassessment of the health risks of tear gas exposures in the civilian population is advised, and development of new countermeasures is proposed.

Concepts: Asthma, Demography, Population, Population density, Rio de Janeiro, Sensory neuron, Pepper spray, CS gas


Mechanical allodynia is a major symptom of neuropathic pain whereby innocuous touch evokes severe pain. Here we identify a population of peripheral sensory neurons expressing TrkB that are both necessary and sufficient for producing pain from light touch after nerve injury in mice. Mice in which TrkB-Cre-expressing neurons are ablated are less sensitive to the lightest touch under basal conditions, and fail to develop mechanical allodynia in a model of neuropathic pain. Moreover, selective optogenetic activation of these neurons after nerve injury evokes marked nociceptive behavior. Using a phototherapeutic approach based upon BDNF, the ligand for TrkB, we perform molecule-guided laser ablation of these neurons and achieve long-term retraction of TrkB-positive neurons from the skin and pronounced reversal of mechanical allodynia across multiple types of neuropathic pain. Thus we identify the peripheral neurons which transmit pain from light touch and uncover a novel pharmacological strategy for its treatment.

Concepts: Nervous system, Laser, Pain, Sensory system, Skin, Nociceptor, Necessary and sufficient condition, Sensory neuron


neuropeptide substance P (SP) is produced and released by a subset of peripheral sensory neurons that respond to tissue damage (nociceptors). SP exerts excitatory effects in the CNS but peripheral SP actions are still poorly understood; therefore here we aimed to investigate these peripheral mechanisms.

Concepts: Effect, Pain, Sensory system, Nociception, Nociceptor, Neurotransmitter, Sensory receptor, Sensory neuron


Chemosensory neurons extract information about chemical cues from the environment. How is the activity in these sensory neurons transformed into behavior? Using Caenorhabditis elegans, we map a novel sensory neuron circuit motif that encodes odor concentration. Primary neurons, AWC(ON) and AWA, directly detect the food odor benzaldehyde (BZ) and release insulin-like peptides and acetylcholine, respectively, which are required for odor-evoked responses in secondary neurons, ASEL and AWB. Consistently, both primary and secondary neurons are required for BZ attraction. Unexpectedly, this combinatorial code is altered in aged animals: odor-evoked activity in secondary, but not primary, olfactory neurons is reduced. Moreover, experimental manipulations increasing neurotransmission from primary neurons rescues aging-associated neuronal deficits. Finally, we correlate the odor responsiveness of aged animals with their lifespan. Together, these results show how odors are encoded by primary and secondary neurons and suggest reduced neurotransmission as a novel mechanism driving aging-associated sensory neural activity and behavioral declines.

Concepts: Nervous system, Neuron, Brain, Caenorhabditis elegans, Action potential, Axon, Encoding, Sensory neuron


Many primary sensory neurons are polymodal, responding to multiple stimulus modalities (chemical, thermal, or mechanical), yet each modality is recognized differently. Although polymodality implies that stimulus encoding occurs in higher centers, such as the spinal cord or brain, recent sensory neuron ablation studies find that behavioral responses to different modalities require distinct subpopulations, suggesting the existence of modality-specific labeled lines at the level of the sensory afferent. Here we provide evidence that neurons expressing TRPM8, a cold- and menthol-gated channel required for normal cold responses in mammals, represents a labeled line solely for cold sensation. We examined the behavioral significance of conditionally ablating TRPM8-expressing neurons in adult mice, finding that, like animals lacking TRPM8 channels (Trpm8(-/-)), animals depleted of TRPM8 neurons (“ablated”) are insensitive to cool to painfully cold temperatures. Ablated animals showed little aversion to noxious cold and did not distinguish between cold and a preferred warm temperature, a phenotype more profound than that of Trpm8(-/-) mice which exhibit only partial cold-avoidance and -preference behaviors. In addition to acute responses, cold pain associated with inflammation and nerve injury was significantly attenuated in ablated and Trpm8(-/-) mice. Moreover, cooling-induced analgesia after nerve injury was abolished in both genotypes. Last, heat, mechanical, and proprioceptive behaviors were normal in ablated mice, demonstrating that TRPM8 neurons are dispensable for other somatosensory modalities. Together, these data show that, although some limited cold sensitivity remains in Trpm8(-/-) mice, TRPM8 neurons are required for the breadth of behavioral responses evoked by cold temperatures.

Concepts: Nervous system, Neuron, Temperature, Sensory system, Proprioception, Cold, Modality, Sensory neuron


Total knee arthroplasty (TKA) is a common procedure resulting in significant post-operative pain. Percutaneous cryoneurolysis targeting the infrapatellar branch of the saphenous nerve and anterior femoral cutaneous nerve could relieve post-operative knee pain by temporarily blocking sensory nerve conduction.

Concepts: Nervous system, Sensory system, Knee replacement, Nerve conduction study, Sensory receptor, Femoral nerve, Saphenous nerve, Sensory neuron


Spinal fusion is widely used for patients with spinal disorders; however, patients often suffer from back pain following fusion surgery. Substance P (SP) acts as a pain neurotransmitter via the sensory nerve afferent fibres up to the spinal cord, and is involved in the conduction and modulation of pain. The use of specific SP neurokinin receptor (NKR) antagonists may decrease postoperative pain. In the present study, the effects of alterations in the quantity of SP and NKRs in the early spinal fusion process were investigated. The results of the present study revealed that SP and NKRs began to appear 1 week post‑surgery in fibrous tissues. The abundance of SP and NKRs peaked at 3 weeks post‑surgery; the majority of SP and NKRs were distributed around the allograft and the new microvessels. In conclusion, SP and NKRs are involved in early spinal fusion, a finding that may facilitate the development of novel strategies to promote spinal fusion from a neurogenesis perspective.

Concepts: Nervous system, Time, Neuron, Pain, Sensory system, Receptor antagonist, Neuropsychopharmacology, Sensory neuron


Stroking of the skin produces pleasant sensations that can occur during social interactions with conspecifics, such as grooming. Despite numerous physiological studies (reviewed in ref. 2), molecularly defined sensory neurons that detect pleasant stroking of hairy skin in vivo have not been reported. Previously, we identified a rare population of unmyelinated sensory neurons in mice that express the G-protein-coupled receptor MRGPRB4 (refs 5, 6). These neurons exclusively innervate hairy skin with large terminal arborizations that resemble the receptive fields of C-tactile (CT) afferents in humans. Unlike other molecularly defined mechanosensory C-fibre subtypes, MRGPRB4(+) neurons could not be detectably activated by sensory stimulation of the skin ex vivo. Therefore, we developed a preparation for calcium imaging in the spinal projections of these neurons during stimulation of the periphery in intact mice. Here we show that MRGPRB4(+) neurons are activated by massage-like stroking of hairy skin, but not by noxious punctate mechanical stimulation. By contrast, a different population of C fibres expressing MRGPRD was activated by pinching but not by stroking, consistent with previous physiological and behavioural data. Pharmacogenetic activation of Mrgprb4-expressing neurons in freely behaving mice promoted conditioned place preference, indicating that such activation is positively reinforcing and/or anxiolytic. These data open the way to understanding the function of MRGPRB4 neurons during natural behaviours, and provide a general approach to the functional characterization of genetically identified subsets of somatosensory neurons in vivo.

Concepts: Nervous system, In vivo, Sensory system, Skin, Somatosensory system, Behavior, Receptive field, Sensory neuron


The first point of our body’s contact with tactile stimuli (innocuous and noxious) is the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin that is largely composed of keratinocytes. Here, we sought to define the role that keratinocytes play in touch sensation in vivo and ex vivo. We show that optogenetic inhibition of keratinocytes decreases behavioral and cellular mechanosensitivity. These processes are inherently mediated by ATP signaling, as demonstrated by complementary cutaneous ATP release and degradation experiments. Specific deletion of P2X4 receptors in sensory neurons markedly decreases behavioral and primary afferent mechanical sensitivity, thus positioning keratinocyte-released ATP to sensory neuron P2X4 signaling as a critical component of baseline mammalian tactile sensation. These experiments lay a vital foundation for subsequent studies into the dysfunctional signaling that occurs in cutaneous pain and itch disorders, and ultimately, the development of novel topical therapeutics for these conditions.

Concepts: In vivo, Sensory system, Skin, Sense, Somatosensory system, Epidermis, Sensory receptor, Sensory neuron