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Study Identifies Gene That Makes Gentle Touch Painful After Injury

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NIH researchers found that a gene previously shown to control our sense of our bodies in space may also be responsible for tactile allodynia, the skin’s reaction to injury that makes normally gentle touches feel painful.

Photo: Steve Debenport/Getty

Ever wonder why things that normally feel gentle, like putting on soft shirts, are painful after a sunburn? In a study of four patients with a rare genetic disorder, NIH researchers found that PIEZO2, a gene previously shown to control our sense of our bodies in space and gentle touch, may also be responsible for tactile allodynia: the skin’s reaction to injury that makes normally gentle touches feel painful. 

This and a second NIH-funded study, both published in Science Translational Medicine, used mice to show how the gene may play an essential role in the nervous system’s reaction to injury and inflammation, making PIEZO2 a target for developing precise treatments for relieving the pain caused by cuts, burns and other skin injuries.

“For years scientists have been trying to solve the mystery of how gentle touch becomes painful,” said Dr. Alexander Chesler, a Stadtman investigator at NCCIH and a senior author of one of the studies. “These results suggest PIEZO2 is the gene for tactile allodynia. We hope that these results will help researchers develop better treatments for managing this form of pain.” 

The PIEZO2 gene encodes what scientists call a mechanosensitive protein that produces electrical nerve signals in response to changes in cell shape, such as when skin cells and neurons of the hand are pressed against a table. Since its discovery in mice by a team led by Dr. Ardem Patapoutian of Scripps Research, La Jolla, the lead author of the second paper, scientists have proposed that PIEZO2 plays an important role in touch and pain in humans.

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

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Associate Editor: Carla Garnett
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Staff Writers:

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Dana Talesnik
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