Are Merkel cell-neurite reciprocal synapses involved in the initiation of tactile responses in salamander skin?

J Physiol. 1986 Jul;376:101-20. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.1986.sp016144.


In salamander skin the Merkel cell-neurite complexes located near the base of the epidermis are the morphological correlates of the rapidly adapting touch receptors (Parducz, Leslie, Cooper, Turner & Diamond, 1977). The present electron microscopic studies revealed that these complexes contain reciprocal synapses polarized in the direction Merkel cell to neurite, and in the opposite direction, neurite to Merkel cell. The possible involvement of chemical transmission in the initiation of the mechanosensory response, was studied in vitro with the aid of a stable skin-nerve preparation in which single mechanoreceptors were activated under controlled conditions. Mechanosensitivity was measured with a calibrated prodder (tip diameter 10-30 micron) applied to random or selected points on the surface of the skin while the afferent impulse was recorded in the attached nerve twig. In some experiments the (tungsten) prodder was also used as a surface electrode, allowing the same mechanosensory axon to be excited mechanically (i.e. physiologically), and/or electrically. When applied at a single 'touch spot', suitably timed subthreshold mechanical and subthreshold electrical stimuli could summate to produce a single action potential. The temperature coefficient (Q10) between 5 and 15 degrees C for the latency of the afferent spike was small, in the range 1.3-2, whether it was evoked by mechanical or electrical stimulation. The latency following the mechanical stimulus, which included the transduction step, was longer than that following the electrical stimulus by 0.5-2.5 ms, and this additional delay was also relatively insensitive to temperature. In several cases removal of the epidermis with its Merkel cells (and presumably the most distal portions of the afferent nerve terminations) did not render the remaining skin totally insensitive to mechanical stimulation; however, the remaining receptive elements, though still rapidly adapting, generally had increased mechanosensory thresholds. The mechanosensitivity of the skin was unaffected by bath application of several aminergic (e.g. noradrenaline, 5-hydroxytryptamine, octopamine) and purinergic (e.g. ATP, quinacrine) compounds at concentrations in the range 0.2-2 mM. Removal of extracellular Ca2+ combined with elevation of extracellular Mg2+ (10-40 mM) had relatively little effect on the mechanosensitivity over periods of up to 1 h. In contrast, application of Co2+ (2-10 mM) produced a decrease or blockade of the mechanosensitivity that was not associated with any obvious alterations in the ultrastructure of the Merkel cell-neurite complex.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials
  • Ambystoma
  • Animals
  • Calcium / pharmacology
  • Cobalt / pharmacology
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Magnesium / pharmacology
  • Mechanoreceptors / physiology*
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology
  • Skin / innervation*
  • Skin / ultrastructure
  • Synapses / physiology*
  • Temperature
  • Time Factors


  • Cobalt
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium