The 2021 Nobel Prize for Medicine Helps Unravel Mysteries About How the Body Senses Temperature and Pressure (The Conversation)

The 2021 Nobel Prize for Medicine Helps Unravel Mysteries About How the Body Senses Temperature and Pressure

Steven D. Munger, a professor and vice-chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics and Director of the Center for Smell and Taste at the University of Florida, shares his thoughts regarding the recently announced Nobel Prize Laureates for Physiology or Medicine in The Conversation.


Humans rely on our senses to tell us about the world. Which way is that waterfall? Is it day or night? Is that food fresh or spoiled?

Such questions are harder to answer if our sensory systems can’t detect the sound of rushing water, the shimmer of moonlight, or the odor of spoiled milk. Prior to this week (October 2021), the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine had recognized important advances in our understanding of how sensations are detected in three sensory systems: hearing, vision and smell.

Now, the Nobel Committee has awarded this year’s prize in medicine to two scientists who have advanced our understanding of this detection process for “somatosensation,” the sense responsible for the perceptions of touch, temperature, vibration, pain, and proprioception – the body’s ability to sense its own movements and position in space.

On Oct. 4, 2021, David Julius, a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, and Ardem Patapoutian, a neuroscientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Scripps Research, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their pioneering work identifying proteins that the body uses to detect temperature and pressure. These two scientists led teams that unraveled key steps in the processes by which temperature and pressure are recognized by sensory cells and converted into signals that can be interpreted by the brain as perceptions such as warmth, cold, or texture.

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