Merkel cells are not the mechanosensory transducers in the touch dome of the rat
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The identity of the mechanosensory transducing elements in the vertebrate touch receptors that contain Merkel cell-neurite complexes is unknown. The Merkel cells, however, have long been the favoured candidates. We have now selectively eliminated the Merkel cells from rat touch domes by first loading them with quinacrine, and then irradiating the domes with near-UV light. Mechanical stimulation of these domes revealed a range of mechanosensory function, evaluated qualitatively, that varied from non-responsive to normal. Since irradiation eliminated the quinacrine fluorescence, the status of the Merkel cells was evaluated by EM. In both responsive and unresponsive domes fixed for EM immediately following irradiation, the Merkel cells and associated nerve endings appeared to be normal. After 2 or more days, even in domes that continued to be normally responsive, there was a striking reduction in the normal complement of about 90 Merkel cells, and most of the remaining Merkel cells appeared to be degenerating. However, numerous 'isolated' (Merkel cell-free) nerve endings remained in the basal epidermis. A few of these nerve endings showed signs of damage, but in the non-responsive domes abnormal nerve endings were routinely observed. The EM studies did not exclude the possibility that a few surviving innervated Merkel cells, or even one such, had escaped detection and were responsible for a persisting mechanosensitivity. To resolve this issue a mechanical stimulating technique with a spatial resolution of 55 microns was used to map the mechanosensory profile of a single responsive dome irradiated 2.75 days earlier. This dome was then serially sectioned for EM study. Only seven Merkel cells had survived which appeared to be both viable and innervated, but almost all of the tested sites were normally responsive. When the correlation was made, seven of these sites were located 55-100 microns away from the nearest surviving Merkel cell, four were 110-165 microns away, and three were more than 165 microns away. Even when allowance is made for errors in the positioning of the stimulus, the responses at the last seven sites cannot be attributed to the presence of underlying Merkel cells. We conclude that mechanosensory transduction within touch domes is not a function of the Merkel cells, but must reside in the associated nerve endings.
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