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The Discovery Of A New Organ

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Y:        Hey Don, a team of Swedish biomedical researchers have just discovered a new organ in the bodies of mice, and they expect that humans have it too.

D:        Come on, Yaël, how could they have missed a whole organ!?

Y:        They missed it until now because it’s not a complicated organ like a heart or a liver. It’s a fairly simple sensory organ in the skin that appears to play a critical role in perceiving pain.  The sensory organ causes pain when the skin is damaged by sharp things, like a stabbing needle, pressure, or burning.

D:        But I thought bare nerve endings in the skin detected these kinds of painful stimuli.

Y:        That’s what scientists used to think, until they found the new organ.  It includes nerve endings assisted by a network of cells called Schwann cells. Neuroscientists already knew that Schwann cells protect and support nerve cells in other circumstances.

D:        So, how do the Schwann cells help nerve cells detect painful stimuli?

Y:        They form a mesh-like network at the base of the skin, which is intertwined with fibers of collagen. This allows them to detect anything that would damage the skin by stretching or breaking.

D:        But how could the scientists tell that this organ caused pain in mice?

Y:        They used genetic engineering to make these particular Schwann cells sensitive to light.  When they shined a bright light on the mouse’s paw, the mouse displayed signs of pain, like jerking the paw away and licking it.

D:        If the scientists can confirm that the organ is found in humans, too, this new knowledge might be really useful for things like controlling chronic pain.
mouse

Scientists have discovered a new organ in mice. (6th Happiness, Wikimedia Commons)

A team of Swedish biomedical researchers have just discovered a new organ in the bodies of mice, and they expect that humans have it, too. They missed this organ until now because it's not a complicated organ like a heart or a liver.

It's a fairly simple sensory organ in the skin that appears to play a critical role in perceiving pain. The sensory organ in the skin is damaged by sharp things, like a stabbing needle, pressure, or burning.

Scientists used to think that bare nerve endings in the skin detected these kinds of painful stimuli. The new organ includes nerve endings assisted by a network of cells called Schwann cells. Neuroscientists already knew that Schwann cells protect and support nerve cells in other circumstances.

Schwann cells help nerve cells detect painful stimuli by forming a mesh-like network at the base of the skin, which is intertwined with fibers of collagen. This allows them to detect anything that would damage the skin by stretching or breaking.

Scientists were able to tell that this organ caused pain in mice by using genetic engineering to make these particular Schwann cells sensitive to light. When they shined a bright light on the mouse's paw, the mouse displayed signs of pain, like jerking the paw away and licking it.

If the scientists can confirm that the organ is found in humans, too, this new knowledge might be really useful for things like controlling chronic pain.

Reviewer: Pierangelo Geppetti, University of Florence, Italy.

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