What Are Tactile Cells?

tactile-cells Credit: Ed Uthman/CC-BY-2.0

Tactile cells, also called Merkel cells, are specialized skin cells that play a role in the nervous system's ability to perceive pressure. These disk-shaped cells are often found in association with sensory nerve endings, and experiments have shown their essential role in resolving the finer details of tactile stimuli.

Unlike many components of the tactile nervous system, Merkel cells show a sustained response to mechanical pressure. Other cells signal only when pressure is applied or lifted, but Merkel cells code continuously while their section of skin is in contact with a pressing force. This helps the nervous system detect texture differentials as small as 1 micrometer.