Skin Cells Emit Neuron-Like Bursts Much like Brain Cells, Research Finds

Detected for the first time, it looks like our skin uses a similar signaling process as our brains.
Fabienne Lang
Close-up of skin cells emitting bursts Belote and Simon/Journal of Cell Biology 2019

You were most likely taught that brain activity resembles bursts of electric lights passing from one section to the next. It's thanks to these brain cell bursts that our entire body is able to function the way it does. 

Up until now, it was known that the brain operates in this manner but not many other cells within our body. However, a team of scientists from the Rockefeller University has identified that it's not only neurons that operate in this manner. It turns out that certain skin cells also use a similar process. 

The team's findings were published in the Journal of Cell Biology.


Which skin cells work in this neuron-bursting way?

The team of researchers discovered that these interactions occurred between melanocytes (the skin cells that produce the UV-absorbing pigment melanin), and keratinocytes (the cells that make up most of our epidermis). 

Image of skin cells
The skin cells bursts of communication, Source: Belote and Simon/Journal of Cell Biology 2019

"Keratinocytes are known regulators of melanocyte behavior, and much work has been done to understand how keratinocytes influence melanocyte cell proliferation and the production and transfer of pigment throughout the skin," wrote the authors in their study.

"Nonetheless, cell-cell communication between melanocytes and keratinocytes, at the single-cell level, is poorly understood."

Surprisingly, after observing these two types of skin cells very closely, the team discovered that their process of communication is similar to neural communication.

The way the cells did this, as cellular biophysicist Sanford M. Simon described, was that the team "saw that keratinocytes wrap around melanocytes, forming intimate connections that reminded us of neurons."

Other bodily cells have displayed this kind of behavior before, and scientists have been aware of it. However, it's not previously been understood that skin cells could operate in such a manner. 

As Simon observed "There's a very sophisticated level of signaling going on here that we did not appreciate."

"This opens up a lot of exciting questions about the basic physiology of the skin."

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