Ducks are an ideal model organism for understanding the relationship of how the nervous system converts the mechanical input from fingers contacting an object into an electrical signal in the brain, according to a team of researchers from Yale University School of Medicine. This could lead to more effective treatments for mechanosensory disorders, like chronic pain.

Touch is difficult to study because what we experience as a single sensation is actually a complex suite of stimuli. For many organisms, receptors for many components, such as pressure, temperature, and pain, are intermixed, making it difficult to isolate the influence of any individual component. Typical laboratory models, such as rats and mice, just don't have the sensitivity needed for basic touch study. "The standard laboratory rodents (the workhorse of modern research) are not acutely mechanosensitive. They have mostly hairy skin, whereas their glabrous skin (which is the focus of our research) is limited and devoid of some key mechanoreceptors, such as the Pacinian corpuscles. Therefore, we need to use other models, such as the acutely mechanosensitve ducks, side by side with the mice and rats to understand basic principles of mechanosensitivity in vertebrates," said lead researcher Sviatoslav Bagriantsev.

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The duck bill is highly sensitive to light touch, such as the presence of a potential food source, but is less sensitive to co-occuring sensations like temperature. Their sensory specialization makes them an ideal model to isolate the cellular workings of light touch sensation.

The researchers focused on nerves extending from the trigeminal ganglion, a cluster of sensory neurons in the brain that reach to sensory organs on the duck's bill. For most birds and mammals, the majority of trigeminal neurons are devoted to temperature and pain perception, but, in ducks, most of these neurons are specialized for light touch sensation. Additionally, many of the neurons displayed a stronger response to a light touch than the corresponding neurons in most other birds and mammals. These results demonstrate that although mechanosensation is a complex process that involves many body systems, it is strongly influenced by intrinsic neuron-level differences.

The team's next step is to examine how this works at the molecular level, according to an article on the Smithsonian magazine website. Future research would involve injecting viruses into fertilized duck eggs to disrupt amino acids production. This would help researchers identify what proteins make nerve cells so sensitive in ducks, and hopefully identify their human counterparts.

Research on mechanosensation may result in the development of more effective treatments for neuralgias, chronic pain, and mechanical allodynia, where a light touch feels incredibly painful.