Neural networks in sensory perception

01 January 2021 → Ongoing
Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO)
Research disciplines
  • Medical and health sciences
    • Neurophysiology
neurophysiology biophysics
Project description

The somatosensory system consists of a network of sensory neurons that detect and transmit information about the body's immediate environment, both internal and external, to the brain. The somatosensory system, by causing pain or itching, also has an important alarm function that warns us of potentially harmful stimuli. A wide variety of human conditions, including chronic itching and pain, irritable bowel syndrome and overactive bladder, are directly related to abnormal activity of somatosensory neurons, and patients suffering from these conditions are often immune to existing therapies. There is therefore a need for new treatments, which requires a better understanding of the basic mechanisms of somatosensation. In recent decades, great progress has been made with regard to the repertoire of ion channel subtypes involved in the transduction of sensory stimuli. Of particular interest was the discovery of the family of TRP channels as molecular sensors for thermal stimuli and chemical irritants, and of specific Nav channels as signal transducers in somatosensory neurons. Despite this knowledge, a critical aspect has been neglected, namely their subcellular localization and associated involvement in the propagation of electrical signals. The exact ion channel composition within a cell will dictate the influence of their function on sensory signaling. Therefore, changes in channel distribution or local activity may underlie various sensory disturbances. Here, we present a complementary network of researchers who made breakthrough contributions by identifying the role of TRP and Nav channels in somatosensory stimulus detection. By joining this network, we expect to advance in understanding how the precise localization and coordinated activity of ion channels in sensory nerve endings dictate stimulus detection and transduction, and how altered localization contributes to sensory dysfunction.