We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What is a Merkel Cell?

By H. Colledge
Updated May 17, 2024
Our promise to you
WiseGeek is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At WiseGeek, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

A Merkel cell is a touch receptor found in the skin. Merkel cells, or Merkel-Ranvier cells, are involved in the sensation of light touch, for example when feeling the texture of an object or determining its shape using the fingertips. High concentrations of Merkel cells are found in the fingertips and also in the lips, but they are also present in areas of hairy skin. Sometimes a type of cancer known as a Merkel cell carcinoma arises from Merkel cells. Merkel cells are named after Friedrich Sigmund Merkel, the German scientist who discovered them.

In the skin, Merkel receptor cells are typically situated near sensory nerve endings, with each Merkel cell and each nerve ending forming what is known as a Merkel cell-neurite complex. When the sensation of light touch is detected, the Merkel cell-neurite complex acts as what is called a mechanoreceptor. Mechanoreceptors respond to a particular stimulus, in this case touch, and react by producing electrical nerve impulses which travel along sensory nerves, eventually reaching the brain.

The type of mechanoreceptor formed by a Merkel cell is described as being slowly adapting, which means it can take a number of seconds to return to normal after electrical impulses have been produced by a stimulus. This can be useful in practice, for situations when an object, such as a cup, has to be gripped, because the brain will remain aware of the sensation for longer, decreasing the risk of dropping the cup. Some other types of mechanoreceptors adapt much more quickly — in a fraction of a second — with the result that the fingers would have to be moved over the surface of an object to keep causing new stimulus to maintain the sensation.

A rare type of skin cancer can form from Merkel cells, known as a Merkel cell carcinoma. The cancer is associated with exposure to sunlight, and generally appears on the limbs, head, or neck as a round, red lump, which is firm to the touch and can be mistaken for a harmless skin blemish such as a cyst. It is thought that cancerous changes inside the Merkel cell could be associated with a viral infection. If the tumor is diagnosed and surgically removed early in the disease, before the cancerous cells have had time to spread, the outlook is positive. In cases where the cancer has already spread, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are normally used in addition to surgery to improve symptoms and increase life expectancy.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By matthewc23 — On Jul 16, 2011

Does anyone know how Merkel cells interact with pain? I started thinking about playing the guitar. As a beginner, the strings can be very painful, and you can feel the strings under your fingers. After a while, you start to build calluses that lessen the sensation in your fingers.

I guess my question is: do the calluses damage the Merkel cells in some way, or are the calluses simply extra skin that dampen the signals to the Merkel cells?

By Izzy78 — On Jul 15, 2011

Do all animals have Merkel cells? Surely they have some type of cells that send feelings to the brain, but do they work the same way, and are they called the same thing?

I would imagine that different animals have receptors in different parts of their bodies, too. For example, a lizard might have more Merkel cells on its feet so that it can tell whether it will be able to climb up a surface. I'm sure there are better examples that I can't think of.

I was also wondering about plants. Do climbing plants like vines have Merkel cells that let them know when they have come in contact with another object?

By stl156 — On Jul 14, 2011

I loved the description of the mechanoreceptors. I don't know that I had every knowingly thought about the mechanisms behind it, but I have realized that after you touch something, the sensation goes away after a few seconds. I guess this would explain why.

The article mentions the two different types of receptors, though. Are these evenly spaced around our hands and other body parts, or do certain areas have more of one than the other?

By kentuckycat — On Jul 13, 2011

How many people each year are diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma? I was not even aware that something like this existed, and I wouldn't have known what to look for.

I am still not quite certain what the symptoms would look like. Does anyone know a good place to find Merkel cell carcinoma pictures? How do you tell the difference between the carcinoma and a cyst?

By JimmyT — On Jul 12, 2011

I had no idea there were special cells that were responsible for us being able to feel and touch. I guess it makes sense, though, because all of our other senses have special cells.

One slight thing I'm confused on is: are the Merkel cells part of the skin or the nervous system? Since they cause electrical impulses, my guess would be that they are part of the nervous system. Someone please correct me if you know the answer.

WiseGeek, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

WiseGeek, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.