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Dr. Earl Carstens

Picture of Earl

Position Title
Distinguished Professor Emeritus

  • NPB
Briggs Hall Rm. 279 & 291

Profile Introduction

Functional organization of itch, pain and chemesthesis sensory systems


1977    PhD    (Neurobiology)    University of North Carolina
1972    BS    (Biology)    Cornell University

Research Interests

Functional organization of itch, pain and chemesthesis sensory systems

Our laboratory investigates neural mechanisms of itch, pain, temperature and oral and cutaneous chemical irritation (chemesthesis). We employ a variety of methodological approaches including human psychophysics, animal behavior, neuroanatomy, and electrophysiology including in vivo and in vitro neuronal recording and cell imaging, and optogenetics. Our laboratory has collaborations with other researchers throughout the world. 


Until recently, the sensation of itch has received little attention. We use behavioral and neurophysiological approaches to address the question of whether or not itch and pain sensations are conveyed by separate neural pathways and how these sensory qualities interact. Of particular interest is the ability of several itch mediators (proteases, serotonin, histamine) to elicit prolonged scratching behavior in rodents and excitation of peripheral sensory neurons (investigated using calcium imaging) and superficial spinal dorsal horn neurons (investigataed using neurophysiological recordings) over comparable time courses.  We have recently begun investigating descending modulation of itch transmission from the brain using optogenetic and electrophysiological approaches.  

Our lab also has a longstanding interest in central nervous mechanisms underlying oral irritation. We employ a multidisciplinary approach to investigate the sensory effects of irritant chemicals, such as capsaicin (from red chili peppers), menthol (from mint), cinnamic aldehyde (from cinnamon), mustard oil, and carbonation and other agents causing tingle, with a focus on transduction mechanisms involving  thermosensitive TRP (transient receptor potential) ion channels. 


Fulbright Scholar Award, Romania, 2014-15

Fulbright Scholar Award, Germany, 1995-96

Fulbright Scholar Award, Germany, 1987-88

Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, 1977-78

Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, 1987

Department and Center Affiliations

Center for Neuroscience

Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


Soc. for Neuroscience; Assoc. for Chemoreception Sciences; Intl. Assoc. for the Study of Pain; Int. Forum for the Study of Itch (currently serving as President)

CBS Grad Group Affiliations


Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Physiology

Specialties / Focus

Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Physiology

  • Neurophysiology

Graduate Groups not Housed in CBS

Food Science Graduate Group


Carstens Lab

  • Carstens Lab: Earl Carstens, Mirela Iodi Carstens

Teaching Interests



NPB 100 NPB 100 (neurobiology); MCIP 210B (neurophysiology) (Winter)