Touch is initiated by diverse somatosensory afferents that innervate the skin. The ability to manipulate and classify receptor subtypes is prerequisite for elucidating sensory mechanisms. Merkel cell-neurite complexes, which distinguish shapes and textures, are experimentally tractable mammalian touch receptors that mediate slowly adapting type I (SAI) responses. The assessment of SAI function in mutant mice has been hindered because previous studies did not distinguish SAI responses from slowly adapting type II (SAII) responses, which are thought to arise from different end organs, such as Ruffini endings. Thus we sought methods to discriminate these afferent types. We developed an epidermis-up ex vivo skin-nerve chamber to record action potentials from afferents while imaging Merkel cells in intact receptive fields. Using model-based cluster analysis, we found that two types of slowly adapting receptors were readily distinguished based on the regularity of touch-evoked firing patterns. We identified these clusters as SAI (coefficient of variation = 0.78 +/- 0.09) and SAII responses (0.21 +/- 0.09). The identity of SAI afferents was confirmed by recording from transgenic mice with green fluorescent protein-expressing Merkel cells. SAI receptive fields always contained fluorescent Merkel cells (n = 10), whereas SAII receptive fields lacked these cells (n = 5). Consistent with reports from other vertebrates, mouse SAI and SAII responses arise from afferents exhibiting similar conduction velocities, receptive field sizes, mechanical thresholds, and firing rates. These results demonstrate that mice, like other vertebrates, have two classes of slowly adapting light-touch receptors, identify a simple method to distinguish these populations, and extend the utility of skin-nerve recordings for genetic dissection of touch receptor mechanisms.
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