Until now, it’s been unclear how the sensation of itching was carried to the brain. Was this a separate system, or did it use the same nerve pathways as pain, touch, or temperature? To find out, the researchers focused on a special group of nerve cells called “TRPV1 neurons,” which extend to the skin and detect temperature, various types of pain, and itch. These neurons use several chemicals to transmit signals; one of those is a neurotransmitter called Nppb. When the researchers created mice lacking Nppb, the mice became immune to itching. Even when the researchers exposed the mice to several itchy substances, such as histamine, the mice refused to scratch!
When the researchers actually removed specific spinal cord nerves that receive the Nppb itch signals, other sensations—like pain, touch, and temperature—remained intact. So we now know that in mice, and possibly in humans, there are specific nerve cells and brain circuitry that are entirely devoted to that itchy feeling. That means blocking Nppb could turn out to be a safe and effective strategy to cure itching, especially in chronic cases.
 The cells and circuitry for itch responses in mice. Mishra SK, Hoon MA. Science. 2013 May 24;340(6135):968-71.
NIH support: National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research