Friday, December 21, 2012

Genetic variation influences sensitivity to pain

Sensitivity towards pain is not the same in all humans. Some of us are more sensitive to painful stimuli, while others are less affected. In order to find out why some people are more sensitive than others, a research consortium of Chinese and British scientists tried to unravel whether there are genetic factors that are of underlying influence. They found that there is a strong relationship between certain genes and sensitivity to pain. This may eventually lead to novel painkillers and ways to prevent chronic pain.

In order to uncover the relationship between pain sensitivity and genetics, the scientists screened 2500 volunteers. They were given a pain sensitivity test, which consists of a heat element that is increasing in temperature. When the volunteer feels the pain from the heat is more than he or she can take, a button is pressed, which stops the heat element. Obviously, a longer time equals less sensitivity to pain. The scientists took the 200 most sensitive and the 200 least sensitive participants and screened their DNA.

It appears that there is a difference between pain sensitive and insensitive people on a genetic level. The scientists found that people that are less sensitive to pain have more variance in a number of genes. That means that these genes are more varied in structure compared to people that are more sensitive to pain. In addition, these genes were mainly found to be part of a network that is aimed at regulating a protein called angiotensin II. This is peculiar because the protein is mostly associated with regulating blood pressure, among other functions.

Because the findings are so peculiar, it remains to be seen what the underlying reason is behind these differences in pain sensitivity. Perhaps angiotensin II is performing a function that we currently do not have any knowledge of. As we already know that this protein, aside from its blood pressure-regulating features, has many functions, it could very well be possible that we have overlooked something up till now. Finding out what that is exactly may lead to the development of new painkillers. We may also find a way to overcome chronic pain, as it is known that people with more sensitivity to pain are more likely to develop chronic pain.
A couple of the functions of angiotensin II. Mainly revolves around regulating blood pressure.

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