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Researchers touch on something new
Sunday 13 December 2009
Researchers touch on something new
Work by team affiliated with Albany Med focuses on nerves, perception
ALBANY -- Nerve endings throughout our skin tell us the texture, temperature and shape of an object we hold, but Albany Medical College researchers have helped discover a separate and unique system of nerves that contributes to the sense of touch.
The nerves are located in our blood vessels and sweat glands.
"We never realized they were players in conscious perception," said Frank Rice, a neuroscientist at Albany Med.
The discovery opens new paths of research for conditions that have baffled the medical community for decades, such as migraine headaches and fibromyalgia.
The discovery appears this week in the journal Pain. At the center of the study is a 41-year-old man from Wales who had none of the typical nerve endings that are found in the skin -- a condition that normally results in no sense of touch. But the man could sense temperature and texture.
The patient's neurologist sent skin samples to Rice, who specializes in identifying nerves and their function and structure. Rice confirmed that the man did not have the standard nerve endings and was processing sensation in some other way. The researchers concluded that the nerves of the blood vessels and sweat glands were responsible, since those nerve endings were the only ones near the skin.
Researchers have known about these nerves but had believed that they were involved in controlling blood flow and bodily functions below the level of consciousness. This research is the first to suggest that the nerves contribute to conscious perception.
Blood vessels go into the skin and start branching out into the tiny vessels and Rice found nerve endings even in the smallest capillaries.
The sensations from these nerves, however, are so faint that the average person probably doesn't notice them, Rice said.
Our more well-known nervous system radiates through the layers of the skin and has dozens of different types of nerve endings to capture information about temperature, vibration and shape. Rice compared the sense of touch to an orchestra playing a symphony.
"The totality of the symphony is what the listener is experiencing even though it is composed of different instruments that have different sounds and that are playing different parts," he said. "Now let's imagine that the sensory endings to the blood vessels in the skin represent just the flutes and the oboes. They are normally contributing to the total sound of the symphony even though the listener may not be paying specific attention to them."
The Welsh man heard only the flutes and oboes and didn't even know he was missing the rest of the symphony, he said.
However, an average person with full nerve sensation would notice if the flutes and oboes stopped playing or if they hit the wrong note.
"That's what may be happening with some painful conditions like fibromyalgia and migraine headaches," Rice said.
The research was done in partnership with the University of Liverpool's Pain Research Institute and Cambridge University.
In Albany, Rice worked with Phillip Albrecht, Dr. Charles Argoff and Dr. James Wymer, who are all affiliated with Albany Med.
The research also involved a company founded by Rice and Albrecht, called Integrated Tissue Dynamics (INTIDYN). Rice said the demand for the nerve research outgrew their Albany Med labs, so they created a research company to expand their capabilities. Drug makers hire the company to study new treatments for pain conditions and also identify side effects and nerve damage caused by new drugs. The company is located at the SUNY East Campus in East Greenbush.
This latest study draws attention to nerves that nobody thought much about, Rice said.
"These are nerve endings that we need to pay closer attention to."
Cathleen F. Crowley can be reached at 454-5348 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The above article originally appeared here.
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