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What are Thermoreceptors?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Thermoreceptors are specialized neurons designed to be sensitive to changes in temperature. These cells generally detect temperature variations within the normal range, while neurons known as nociceptors detect temperatures that could be dangerous to the body. Many organisms rely on these neurons for a variety of things, from alerting them to the fact that they are stepping into a cold river to assisting with the regulation of internal body temperature.

In the skin, thermoreceptors provide the brain with information about environmental temperature. This can be important, as it will alert the body to unusually cool or warm temperatures that might require an action, such as putting on a coat or shedding a layer of clothing to become more comfortable. These neurons are also used to provide more general information about a body's environment, such as that one area of a room is cooler than other spots.

Inside the body, these cells are part of the body's complex and interconnected series of systems that are designed to keep the body in balance. Neurons in the hypothalamus are sensitive to changes in core temperature that could require a response from the body, and there are others inside some body organs, such as the bladder. When these cells fire, they alert the brain to an imbalance in internal temperature that needs to be addressed; for example, cells sensitive to heat in the eyes alert the tear glands to produce more fluid to keep the eyes lubricated.

Some studies have shown that thermoreceptors that are sensitive to cold may play a role in taste. Many people have noticed that the same food can taste very different when it is eaten cold than when it is eaten warm or hot, and these neurons may be involved in this process. There is certainly a high concentration of cold cells around the mouth and tongue, indicating that the mouth has an increased sensitivity to cold temperatures.

If a temperature crosses the line into being dangerous, it will be picked up by nociceptors, neurons that are sensitive to pain. These neurons fire to alert the body to the fact that it is freezing or burning, and that a prompt response could be critical. For example, when someone grabs a hot pan barehanded, nociceptors fire to indicate that the body is burning, and to inform the brain that the cells of the hand have been damaged by the heat, so that the brain can fire a signal in response to get the hand to drop the pan.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon339548 — On Jun 24, 2013

Which type of receptor is responsible for one’s sense of balance? The photoreceptors, the mechanoreceptors, the chemoreceptors or the thermoreceptors?

By KoiwiGal — On Sep 15, 2011

@croydon - That's why you have to feel bad for those people who can't feel pain or even hot or cold.

They have them on TV hospital shows all the time as the "patient of the week" and I don't think they ever really touch on how terrible the condition really is.

Not realizing that you have brushed up against a stove, or that your fingers are being burnt by a pan would be terrible. Most burns are bad enough if you manage to snatch your fingers away quickly.

Of course, they wouldn't have to feel the pain afterwards, but they would have to deal with the other consequences of having a bad burn. And this would happen all the time.

By croydon — On Sep 15, 2011

It's funny how often if you touch a hot pan or something similar, you'll snatch your hand back before you even feel the burn.

I used to think that was a visual thing, like you managed to see what was going to happen and snatch your hand back before the thermoreceptors did their job.

But apparently what actually happens is that the pain messages travel along a different route than the thermoreceptor messages do and get there more slowly. So, even though you don't feel the pain until after you pull your hand back, your brain registered the "too hot!" message a fraction of a second before that.

By irontoenail — On Sep 14, 2011

There is a trick you can do, which they showed us in science class, that will trick the thermoreceptors in your hands.

You have to have a couple of pipes that attach to hot and cold water taps and can be twisted around each other. Then get people to hold on to the twisted pipes while the water is running.

They will feel like they are burning their hand, even though they aren't. If they just touch each pipe separately, it feels fine, but together it feels like very cold, or maybe even too hot to hold.

I'm not sure I remember exactly why this happens, but I'm sure there are lesson plans online that explain it. We were very impressed though.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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