Progressive recruitment of distal MEC-4 channels determines touch response strength in C. elegans.
ABSTRACT: Touch deforms, or strains, the skin beyond the immediate point of contact. The spatiotemporal nature of the touch-induced strain fields depend on the mechanical properties of the skin and the tissues below. Somatosensory neurons that sense touch branch out within the skin and rely on a set of mechano-electrical transduction channels distributed within their dendrites to detect mechanical stimuli. Here, we sought to understand how tissue mechanics shape touch-induced mechanical strain across the skin over time and how individual channels located in different regions of the strain field contribute to the overall touch response. We leveraged Caenorhabditis elegans' touch receptor neurons as a simple model amenable to in vivo whole-cell patch-clamp recording and an integrated experimental-computational approach to dissect the mechanisms underlying the spatial and temporal dynamics we observed. Consistent with the idea that strain is produced at a distance, we show that delivering strong stimuli outside the anatomical extent of the neuron is sufficient to evoke MRCs. The amplitude and kinetics of the MRCs depended on both stimulus displacement and speed. Finally, we found that the main factor responsible for touch sensitivity is the recruitment of progressively more distant channels by stronger stimuli, rather than modulation of channel open probability. This principle may generalize to somatosensory neurons with more complex morphologies.
Project description:Interactions with the physical world are deeply rooted in our sense of touch and depend on ensembles of somatosensory neurons that invade and innervate the skin. Somatosensory neurons convert the mechanical energy delivered in each touch into excitatory membrane currents carried by mechanoelectrical transduction (MeT) channels. Pacinian corpuscles in mammals and touch receptor neurons (TRNs) in Caenorhabditis elegans nematodes are embedded in distinctive specialized accessory structures, have low thresholds for activation, and adapt rapidly to the application and removal of mechanical loads. Recently, many of the protein partners that form native MeT channels in these and other somatosensory neurons have been identified. However, the biophysical mechanism of symmetric responses to the onset and offset of mechanical stimulation has eluded understanding for decades. Moreover, it is not known whether applied force or the resulting indentation activate MeT channels. Here, we introduce a system for simultaneously recording membrane current, applied force, and the resulting indentation in living C. elegans (Feedback-controlled Application of mechanical Loads Combined with in vivo Neurophysiology, FALCON) and use it, together with modeling, to study these questions. We show that current amplitude increases with indentation, not force, and that fast stimuli evoke larger currents than slower stimuli producing the same or smaller indentation. A model linking body indentation to MeT channel activation through an embedded viscoelastic element reproduces the experimental findings, predicts that the TRNs function as a band-pass mechanical filter, and provides a general mechanism for symmetrical and rapidly adapting MeT channel activation relevant to somatosensory neurons across phyla and submodalities.
Project description:Touch sensation hinges on force transfer across the skin and activation of mechanosensitive ion channels along the somatosensory neurons that invade the skin. This skin-nerve sensory system demands a quantitative model that spans the application of mechanical loads to channel activation. Unlike prior models of the dynamic responses of touch receptor neurons in Caenorhabditis elegans (Eastwood et al., 2015), which substituted a single effective channel for the ensemble along the TRNs, this study integrates body mechanics and the spatial recruitment of the various channels. We demonstrate that this model captures mechanical properties of the worm's body and accurately reproduces neural responses to simple stimuli. It also captures responses to complex stimuli featuring non-trivial spatial patterns, like extended or multiple contacts that could not be addressed otherwise. We illustrate the importance of these effects with new experiments revealing that skin-neuron composites respond to pre-indentation with increased currents rather than adapting to persistent stimulation.
Project description:Cutaneous mechanosensory neurons are activated by mechanical loads applied to the skin, and these stimuli are proposed to generate mechanical strain within sensory neurons. Using a microfluidic device to deliver controlled stimuli to intact animals and large, immobile, and fluorescent protein-tagged mitochondria as fiducial markers in the touch receptor neurons (TRNs), we visualized and measured touch-induced mechanical strain in Caenorhabditis elegans worms. At steady state, touch stimuli sufficient to activate TRNs induce an average strain of 3.1% at the center of the actuator and this strain decays to near zero at the edges of the actuator. We also measured strain in animals carrying mutations affecting links between the extracellular matrix (ECM) and the TRNs but could not detect any differences in touch-induced mechanical strain between wild-type and mutant animals. Collectively, these results demonstrate that touching the skin induces local mechanical strain in intact animals and suggest that a fully intact ECM is not essential for transmitting mechanical strain from the skin to cutaneous mechanosensory neurons.
Project description:The somatosensory system relays many signals ranging from light touch to pain and itch. Touch is critical to spatial awareness and communication. However, in disease states, innocuous mechanical stimuli can provoke pathologic sensations such as mechanical itch (alloknesis). The molecular and cellular mechanisms that govern this conversion remain unknown. We found that in mice, alloknesis in aging and dry skin is associated with a loss of Merkel cells, the touch receptors in the skin. Targeted genetic deletion of Merkel cells and associated mechanosensitive Piezo2 channels in the skin was sufficient to produce alloknesis. Chemogenetic activation of Merkel cells protected against alloknesis in dry skin. This study reveals a previously unknown function of the cutaneous touch receptors and may provide insight into the development of alloknesis.
Project description:DEG/ENaC channels have been broadly implicated in mechanosensory transduction, yet many questions remain about how these proteins contribute to complexes that sense mechanical stimuli. In C. elegans, two DEG/ENaC channel subunits are thought to contribute to a gentle touch transduction complex: MEC-4, which is essential for gentle touch sensation, and MEC-10, whose importance is less well defined. By characterizing a mec-10 deletion mutant, we have found that MEC-10 is important, but not essential, for gentle touch responses in the body touch neurons ALM, PLM, and PVM. Surprisingly, the requirement for MEC-10 in ALM and PLM is spatially asymmetric; mec-10 animals show significant behavioral and physiological responses to stimulation at the distal end of touch neuron dendrites, but respond poorly to stimuli applied near the neuronal cell body. The subcellular distribution of a rescuing MEC-10::GFP translational fusion was found to be restricted to the neuronal cell body and proximal dendrite, consistent with the hypothesis that MEC-10 protein is asymmetrically distributed within the touch neuron process. These results suggest that MEC-10 may contribute to only a subset of gentle touch mechanosensory complexes found preferentially at the proximal dendrite.
Project description:Somatosensory neurons mediate responses to diverse mechanical stimuli, from innocuous touch to noxious pain. While recent studies have identified distinct populations of A mechanonociceptors (AMs) that are required for mechanical pain, the molecular underpinnings of mechanonociception remain unknown. Here, we show that the bioactive lipid sphingosine 1-phosphate (S1P) and S1P Receptor 3 (S1PR3) are critical regulators of acute mechanonociception. Genetic or pharmacological ablation of S1PR3, or blockade of S1P production, significantly impaired the behavioral response to noxious mechanical stimuli, with no effect on responses to innocuous touch or thermal stimuli. These effects are mediated by fast-conducting A mechanonociceptors, which displayed a significant decrease in mechanosensitivity in S1PR3 mutant mice. We show that S1PR3 signaling tunes mechanonociceptor excitability via modulation of KCNQ2/3 channels. Our findings define a new role for S1PR3 in regulating neuronal excitability and establish the importance of S1P/S1PR3 signaling in the setting of mechanical pain thresholds.
Project description:To distinguish between complex somatosensory stimuli, central circuits must combine signals from multiple peripheral mechanoreceptor types, as well as mechanoreceptors at different sites in the body. Here, we investigate the first stages of somatosensory integration in Drosophila using in vivo recordings from genetically labeled central neurons in combination with mechanical and optogenetic stimulation of specific mechanoreceptor types. We identify three classes of central neurons that process touch: one compares touch signals on different parts of the same limb, one compares touch signals on right and left limbs, and the third compares touch and proprioceptive signals. Each class encodes distinct features of somatosensory stimuli. The axon of an individual touch receptor neuron can diverge to synapse onto all three classes, meaning that these computations occur in parallel, not hierarchically. Representing a stimulus as a set of parallel comparisons is a fast and efficient way to deliver somatosensory signals to motor circuits.
Project description:Cutaneous mechanosensory neurons detect mechanical stimuli that generate touch and pain sensation. Although opioids are generally associated only with the control of pain, here we report that the opioid system in fact broadly regulates cutaneous mechanosensation, including touch. This function is predominantly subserved by the delta opioid receptor (DOR), which is expressed by myelinated mechanoreceptors that form Meissner corpuscles, Merkel cell-neurite complexes, and circumferential hair follicle endings. These afferents also include a small population of CGRP-expressing myelinated nociceptors that we now identify as the somatosensory neurons that coexpress mu and delta opioid receptors. We further demonstrate that DOR activation at the central terminals of myelinated mechanoreceptors depresses synaptic input to the spinal dorsal horn, via the inhibition of voltage-gated calcium channels. Collectively our results uncover a molecular mechanism by which opioids modulate cutaneous mechanosensation and provide a rationale for targeting DOR to alleviate injury-induced mechanical hypersensitivity.
Project description:Touch sensation is essential for behaviours ranging from environmental exploration to social interaction; however, the underlying mechanisms are largely unknown. In Drosophila larvae, two types of sensory neurons, class III and class IV dendritic arborization neurons, tile the body wall. The mechanotransduction channel PIEZO in class IV neurons is essential for sensing noxious mechanical stimuli but is not involved in gentle touch. On the basis of electrophysiological-recording, calcium-imaging and behavioural studies, here we report that class III dendritic arborization neurons are touch sensitive and contribute to gentle-touch sensation. We further identify NOMPC (No mechanoreceptor potential C), a member of the transient receptor potential (TRP) family of ion channels, as a mechanotransduction channel for gentle touch. NOMPC is highly expressed in class III neurons and is required for their mechanotransduction. Moreover, ectopic NOMPC expression confers touch sensitivity to the normally touch-insensitive class IV neurons. In addition to the critical role of NOMPC in eliciting gentle-touch-mediated behavioural responses, expression of this protein in the Drosophila S2 cell line also gives rise to mechanosensitive channels in which ion selectivity can be altered by NOMPC mutation, indicating that NOMPC is a pore-forming subunit of a mechanotransduction channel. Our study establishes NOMPC as a bona fide mechanotransduction channel that satisfies all four criteria proposed for a channel to qualify as a transducer of mechanical stimuli and mediates gentle-touch sensation. Our study also suggests that different mechanosensitive channels may be used to sense gentle touch versus noxious mechanical stimuli.
Project description:Gentle touch sensation in Caenorhabditis elegans is mediated by the MEC-4/MEC-10 channel complex, which is expressed exclusively in six touch receptor neurons (TRNs). The complex contains two pore-forming subunits, MEC-4 and MEC-10, as well as the accessory subunits MEC-2, MEC-6, and UNC-24. MEC-4 is essential for channel function, but beyond its role as a pore-forming subunit, the functional contribution of MEC-10 to the channel complex and to touch sensation is unclear. We addressed this question using behavioral assays, in vivo electrophysiological recordings from TRNs, and heterologous expression of mutant MEC-10 isoforms. Animals with a deletion in mec-10 showed only a partial loss of touch sensitivity and a modest decrease in the size of the mechanoreceptor current (MRC). In contrast, five previously identified mec-10 alleles acted as recessive gain-of-function alleles that resulted in complete touch insensitivity. Each of these alleles produced a substantial decrease in MRC size and a shift in the reversal potential in vivo. The latter finding indicates that these mec-10 mutations alter the ionic selectivity of the transduction channel in vivo. All mec-10 mutant animals had properly localized channel complexes, indicating that the loss of MRCs was not attributable to a dramatic mislocalization of transduction channels. Finally, electrophysiological examination of heterologously expressed complexes suggests that mutant MEC-10 proteins may affect channel current via MEC-2.