Unique temperature-activated neurons from pit viper thermosensors

Todd C. Pappas, Massoud Motamedi, Burgess N. Christensen

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    17 Scopus citations


    Rattle-snakes, copperheads, and other pit vipers have highly sensitive heat detectors known as pit organs, which are used to sense and strike at prey. However, it is not currently known how temperature change triggers cellular and molecular events that activate neurons supplying the pit organ. We dissociated and cultured neurons from the trigeminal ganglia (TG) innervating the pit organs of the Western Diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) and the copperhead (Agkistrodon contortix) to investigate electrophysiological responses to thermal stimuli. Whole cell voltage-clamp recordings indicated that 75% of the TG neurons from C. atrox and 74% of the TG neurons from A. contortix showed a unique temperature-activated inward current (IΔT). We also found an IΔT-like current in 15% of TG neurons from the common garter snake, a species that does not have a specialized heat-sensing organ. A steep rise in the current-temperature relationship of IΔT started just below 18°C, and cooling temperature-responsive TG neurons from 20°C resulted in an outward current, suggesting that IΔT is on at relatively low temperatures. Ion substitution and Ca2+ imaging experiments indicated that IΔT is primarily a monovalent cation current. IΔT was not sensitive to capsaicin or amiloride, suggesting that the current did not show similar pharmacology to other mammalian heat-sensitive membrane proteins. Our findings indicate that a novel temperature-sensitive conductance with unique ion permeability and low-temperature threshold is expressed in TG neurons and may be involved in highly sensitive heat detection in snakes.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)C1219-C1228
    JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Cell Physiology
    Issue number5 56-5
    StatePublished - Nov 2004


    • Ion conductance
    • Snake
    • Thermosensory
    • Trigeminal

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Physiology
    • Cell Biology


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