Merkel disc is a serotonergic synapse in the epidermis for transmitting tactile signals in mammals

Academic Article


  • The evolution of sensory systems has let mammals develop complicated tactile end organs to enable sophisticated sensory tasks, including social interaction, environmental exploration, and tactile discrimination. The Merkel disc, a main type of tactile end organ consisting of Merkel cells (MCs) and Aβ-afferent endings, are highly abundant in fingertips, touch domes, and whisker hair follicles of mammals. The Merkel disc has high tactile acuity for an object's physical features, such as texture, shape, and edges. Mechanisms underlying the tactile function of Merkel discs are obscured as to how MCs transmit tactile signals to Aβ-afferent endings leading to tactile sensations. Using mouse whisker hair follicles, we show herein that tactile stimuli are transduced by MCs into excitatory signals that trigger vesicular serotonin release from MCs. We identify that both ionotropic and metabotropic 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) receptors are expressed on whisker Aβ-afferent endings and that their activation by serotonin released from MCs initiates Aβ-afferent impulses. Moreover, we demonstrate that these ionotropic and metabotropic 5-HT receptors have a synergistic effect that is critical to both electrophysiological and behavioral tactile responses. These findings elucidate that the Merkel disc is a unique serotonergic synapse located in the epidermis and plays a key role in tactile transmission. The epidermal serotonergic synapse may have important clinical implications in sensory dysfunctions, such as the loss of tactile sensitivity and tactile allodynia seen in patients who have diabetes, inflammatory diseases, and undergo chemotherapy. It may also have implications in the exaggerated tactile sensations induced by recreational drugs that act on serotoninergic synapses.
  • Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Author List

  • Chang W; Kanda H; Ikeda R; Ling J; DeBerry JJ; Gu JG
  • Start Page

  • E5491
  • End Page

  • E5500
  • Volume

  • 113
  • Issue

  • 37