The discovery, reported in the May 3 issue of the journal Neuron, might one day lead to the development of drugs that induce cold sensation as an analgesic, or block it to prevent certain forms of chronic pain associated with cold sensation.
"This study represents the first demonstration that a single gene is responsible for most cool temperature sensation," says team leader Ardem Patapoutian, who has joint appointments with the Department of Cell Biology at Scripps Research and the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation. "Many previous candidates have been postulated to play a role in our ability to sense cool temperatures, but none have withstood the test of genetics," he says.
TRPM8 was first discovered by Patapoutians group and proposed as a key gene controlling cold sensation. To test the hypothesis, the group observed the behavior of mice genetically altered to lack the gene in response to cold stimuli.
When placed in compartments with a temperature gradient, or in an enclosure where they could choose between two temperatures, mice without TRPM8 showed essentially no preference in the temperature range of 18 to 31C, suggesting their ability to sense this range was completely disabled without the gene. Normal mice, on the other hand, found cold temperature unpleasant, reliably avoiding cold temperatures in favor of warmer areas.
"Its pretty amazing that one gene could impact thermal sensation this much," says Ajay Dhaka, a Scripps Research postdoctoral fellow in the Patapoutian lab and lead author on the Neuron paper. "It really highlights the importance of the peripheral nervous system and how temperature affects our behavior," he says.
The altered mice also showed little response to the application of acetone to their hindpaw, which causes an unpleasant cold sensation, while the acetone caused normal mice to flick their paw and lick them.