American scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian won the 2021 Nobel Prize for medicine for discovering how humans feel temperature and touch. 

The findings “have allowed us to understand how heat, cold and mechanical force can initiate the nerve impulses that allow us to perceive and adapt to the world around us,” the Nobel Assembly of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said this week. 

“This knowledge is being used to develop treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain.”

Their breakthroughs have led to a flurry of research and “a rapid increase in our understanding of how our nervous system senses heat, cold and mechanical stimuli”, it said.

“This really unlocks one of the secrets of nature,” says Thomas Perlmann, secretary-general of the Nobel Committee. 

“It’s actually something that is crucial for our survival, so it’s a very important and profound discovery.”

Dr Julius used capsaicin, the active component in chili peppers, to identify the nerve sensors used by the skin to pick up heat.

Dr Patapoutian was behind the discovery of separate pressure-sensitive sensors in cells that respond to mechanical stimulation.

The pair shared the Kavli Award for Neuroscience last year.

“Imagine that you’re walking barefoot across a field on this summer’s morning,” Patrik Ernfors of the Nobel Committee said. 

“You can feel the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the morning dew, a caressing summer breeze and the fine texture of blades of grass underneath your feet. These impressions of temperature, touch and movement are feelings relying on somatosensation.”

“Such information continuously flows from the skin and other deep tissues and connects us with the external and internal world. It is also essential for tasks that we perform effortlessly and without much thought.”

Dr Patapoutian, who was born to Armenian parents in Lebanon and moved to Los Angeles in his youth, is a Professor at Scripps Research, La Jolla, California.

New York-born Dr Julius is a Professor at University of California, San Francisco.