Professor finds method to turn off ‘cold’ feeling


Scientists might be one step closer to reducing the symptoms of chronic pain and injury thanks to groundbreaking research by USC Professor David McKemy and his research team, who identified and shut off the network of neurons that control cool temperature sensations.

Heat wave · Professor David McKemy and his research team found the network of neurons that controls cold temperature sensations.  - Courtesy of David McKemy

Heat wave · Professor David McKemy and his research team found the network of neurons that controls cold temperature sensations. – Courtesy of David McKemy

McKemy, an associate professor of neurobiology at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, worked alongside a team of graduate and undergraduate students. Through their research, they were able to identify a previously unknown sensory neuron named TRPM8, which is specifically able to sense cold. They then proceeded with a study to eliminate the neuron from the cells and observed how the mice in their study would be affected in the neuron’s absence.

“We thought if these neurons really do sense cold, what happens if we get rid of them in a mouse model?” McKemy said.

After three years of research, McKemy and his team were able to successfully remove the neurons from the cells, something that made the laboratory mice incapable of feeling cold but still able to feel heat and touch.

“That was really the surprise for us,” McKemy said. “We didn’t know these neurons were so specific to cold sensation and not to the sensation of heat and touch.”

The study has narrowed down which cells are involved in detecting cold, which greatly impacts the way in which scientists understand and can potentially respond to the sensation of pain.

McKemy’s research might be applied in the future to help reduce the symptoms of injuries and chronic pain, since injuries have increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli such as temperature and force. Chronic pain conditions are associated with cold stimuli; Thus, if TRPM8 neurons in cells of subjects enduring chronic pain or injuries were turned off in the same way as the cells in his mice study, symptoms of pain could potentially be alleviated.

“We have some interesting routes which can be taken to either relieve pain or block it from ever happening,” McKemy said.