Sensing heat: How chili peppers are being used to understand touch

You’ve probably felt the sense of something extremely hot or extremely cold, but have you ever wondered exactly how we sense temperature?

That’s exactly what some scientists wanted to know, so one award-winning scientist used chili peppers to help crack the secret. Dr David Julius recently used research on chili peppers to jointly win a Nobel Prize.

For decades he’s been taking a closer look at understanding pain and touch. In his research, Julius actually found the receptors that enable nerve fibers to detect cold and hot temperatures. The ability to sense touch and temperature is something we all need to survive, but most of us probably don’t think much about it as we go about our daily lives. Thanks to Dr Julius, though, we now have a better idea of how it works. The award-winning scientist used capsaicin to help find some answers. That’s the compound in chili peppers that leads to a burning sensation. Julius was then able to find the sensor in nerve endings capable of reacting to heat. Julius shares this year’s award with Dr Ardem Patapoutian.

His work helps better explain how cells experience and feel things.

When capsaicin touches our skin it burns, but it really just gives us the sense of pain. The more capsaicin there is in a particular pepper, the hotter it is. That’s why there’s so much variance up and down the hot pepper scale. Some peppers are extremely low on the hotness scale, others are in the middle, while still others are off the chart hot! The wide variety of peppers and pepper products to choose from is what makes it so fun. You’re able to find a level you feel comfortable at, then work your way up the pepper scale from there. This makes it easy to enjoy a boost of spicy hot flavor whenever you choose.

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