Pain research is an active area for scientists, who are investigating everything from new treatments to deeper understandings of how the brain processes pain signals. Insights that begin in a lab can ultimately affect millions of people’s lives. Not all research is monumental or revolutionary, but these six studies are pretty wow-worthy.
1. New, non-addictive pain medications on horizon
The opioid epidemic has turned many doctors and patients away from using the pills to alleviate pain, but not many good alternatives have risen up in place of the dangerous narcotics. That could change soon, as researchers work on a powerful method that combines cutting-edge genetics with the power of pharmaceuticals.
Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital continued genetics research from 2006, which found that people with a specific gene have a lower risk for developing chronic pain. The gene has this influence by limiting the production of a specific protein after a nerve sustains injury. Researchers decided to try developing a pill with that same effect of limiting production of the protein.
The research was successful—scientists designed a drug that reduced pain by limiting production of the protein without affecting protective pain, the kind that helps us avoid injury. And since the drug didn’t affect brain chemistry, like opioids do, there isn’t a risk of addiction.
The treatment needs further research before it could be released on the market, but researchers are hopeful that this drug, or others like it, could offer chronic pain patients hope.
2. Pain really is all in your head
At the University of Bern, researchers discovered a brain mechanism in mice that results in neurons remembering pain in such a way that it becomes etched into those neurons like the groove of a record. This neuron memory contributes to chronic pain.
Pain, after all, doesn’t technically originate in the body, but in the brain as it responds to messages from nerves that they’re damaged. After receiving messages of damage, the brain then sends pain signals felt throughout the body.
Although neuron memories aren’t reversible, researchers do believe there are ways to reduce the impact to patients by helping the neuron essentially forget them, temporarily. One way to do this is by manipulating serotonin, a neurotransmitter commonly linked to mood. The researchers found serotonin helped to normalize the neuron and reduce the perception of pain.
3. Propensity for chronic pain related to genetics
Increasing knowledge of genetics is changing the future of medicine, and it’s no different in the field of chronic pain. Researchers from the University of Cambridge have discovered a gene mutation linked to pain sensory, a finding that could influence the future of medication and treatment.
The discovery came after studying a set of rare people who can’t feel pain. Although that may sound nice, it can actually be dangerous. Think what it would be like if you never got a warning signal after touching a hot plate or scalding water.
Researchers examined the patients and found they lacked specific neurons needed to sense pain. Scientists believe this happened during embryonic development. This is not the first gene variant to be connected with pain perception—five others are known, and two of those mutations have lead to new painkillers currently in clinical testing.
Scientists hope this new discovery could also lead to new medications.
4. Pain perception influenced by subconscious
Although it’s already been proven that associations with specific imagery or other stimuli can provoke pain, researchers until now haven’t been sure whether those cues influence sensation on a subconscious level.
Swedish scientists investigated and discovered that yes, patients’ pain reports were influenced by the types of stimuli shown, regardless of whether the subject processed the stimuli consciously or not. Some images were shown so quickly that subjects couldn’t have processed them on a conscious level. Researcher Karin Jensen says:
“These results demonstrate that pain responses can be shaped by learning that takes place outside conscious awareness, suggesting that unconscious learning may have an extensive effect on higher cognitive processes in general.”
5. Scientists convert skin cells into pain-processing neurons
In a discovery with little immediate practical application, but huge potential to influence the future of pain research, scientists from Harvard University have successfully converted skin cells from mice and humans into neurons that can sense pain.
These converted skin cells can also respond to pain and inflammation-causing stimuli, helping scientists learn more effective ways of treating chronic pain.
The effort was more than six years in the making, and at times the medical community doubted whether it was possible. For the first three years, the team used an entirely wrong approach. But dogged persistence paid off and the team declared an eventual victory.
At first, the team tried to turn embryonic cells into the neurons, but that method proved too complex. Eventually, after several years, genetics technology advanced and the team’s approach shifted. The breakthrough approach involved transforming skin cells from adult humans and mice into the pain-sensitive neurons.
These neurons will be used to guide future research.
6. Researchers uncover off switch for pain
It’s only been done in animal studies, but pain research from Saint Louis University Medical Center has revealed a way to block pain pathways involved in chronic neuropathic pain. This pain is often caused by chemotherapy or bone cancer, and scientists hold hope the discovery could eventually help people who are suffering.
The off switch is actually a brain receptor called the A3 adenosine receptor subtype. Researchers say that that activating this receptor prevents pain without the destructive side effects of opioids. Adenosine is a molecule found in human cells, but it’s also produced and available as an injected medication to treat some types of pain.
The discovery bolsters the potential of a few related medications already in clinical trials for reducing inflammation or fighting cancer by manipulating the same receptor. The medications could potentially provide this same off-switch mechanism for chronic pain patients.
Which new pain research study do you find the most interesting?
Image by iT@c via Flickr