Merkel cells and keratinocytes in oral mucosa are activated by mechanical stimulation

Chi Kun Tong, Yalda Moayedi, Ellen A. Lumpkin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The detection of mechanical qualities of foodstuffs is essential for nutrient acquisition, evaluation of food freshness, and bolus formation during mastication. However, the mechanisms through which mechanosensitive cells in the oral cavity transmit mechanical information from the periphery to the brain are not well defined. We hypothesized Merkel cells, which are epithelial mechanoreceptors and important for pressure and texture sensing in the skin, can be mechanically activated in the oral cavity. Using live-cell calcium imaging, we recorded Merkel cell activity in ex vivo gingival and palatal preparations from mice in response to mechanical stimulation. Merkel cells responded with distinct temporal patterns and activation thresholds in a region-specific manner, with Merkel cells in the hard palate having a higher mean activation threshold than those in the gingiva. Unexpectedly, we found that oral keratinocytes were also activated by mechanical stimulation, even in the absence of Merkel cells. This indicates that mechanical stimulation of oral mucosa independently activates at least two subpopulations of epithelial cells. Finally, we found that oral Merkel cells contribute to preference for consuming oily emulsion. To our knowledge, these data represent the first functional study of Merkel-cell physiology and its role in flavor detection in the oral cavity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere15826
JournalPhysiological Reports
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 2024


  • Merkel cells
  • PIEZO2
  • calcium imaging
  • oral mucosa

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Physiology (medical)


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