Scratching an itch

A new mechanism involved in the sensation of itching has been found in mice
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Microscopy image of cells in the spinal cord expressing the receptors for the neuropeptides neuromedin B (NMB; green) and B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP; red). Image credit: Xue-Ting Liu (CC BY 4.0)

An itch is a common sensation that makes us want to scratch. Most short-term itches are caused by histamine, a chemical that is released by immune cells following an infection or in response to an allergic reaction. Chronic itching, on the other hand, is not usually triggered by histamine, and is typically the result of neurological or skin disorders, such as atopic dermatitis.

The sensation of itching is generated by signals that travel from the skin to nerve cells in the spinal cord. Studies in mice have shown that the neuropeptides responsible for delivering these signals differ depending on whether or not the itch involves histamine: GRPs (short for gastrin-releasing proteins) convey histamine-independent itches, while NMBs (short for neuromedin B) convey histamine-dependent itches.

It has been proposed that another neuropeptide called BNP (short for B-type natriuretic peptide) is able to transmit both types of itch signals to the spinal cord. But it remains unclear how this signaling molecule is able to do this.

To investigate, Meng, Liu, Liu, Liu et al. carried out a combination of behavioral, molecular and pharmacological experiments in mice and nerve cells cultured in a laboratory. The experiments showed that BNP alone cannot transmit the sensation of itching, but it can boost itching signals that are triggered by histamine.

It is widely believed that BNP activates a receptor protein called NPRA. However, Meng et al. found that the BNP actually binds to another protein which alters the function of the receptor activated by NMBs. These findings suggest that BNP modulates rather than initiates histamine-dependent itching by enhancing the interaction between NMBs and their receptor.

Understanding how itch signals travel from the skin to neurons in the spinal cord is crucial for designing new treatments for chronic itching. The work by Meng et al. suggests that treatments targeting NPRA, which was thought to be a key itch receptor, may not be effective against chronic itching, and that other drug targets need to be explored.