Pain is one of the body’s major defence mechanisms. It ‘hurts’ so that we pay attention to it, but when pain becomes chronic it has largely lost its purpose.
Now, researchers at Stanford University have been able to pinpoint the neurons in the brains of mice that make pain hurt. The discovery follows previous research that found that damage to a set of neurons called the Amygdala, which are located deep within the brain’s temporal lobe, reduces the sensation of pain.
However, what is particularly remarkable about this research is that not only have they identified the source of pain in mice, but they have been able to alter the relevant neurons in such a way that the unpleasantness of pain is reduced without eliminating the basic sensation. This has been likened to pain patients taking opioids who can still feel the sensation of pain, but it is less intense and troublesome until the effect of the opioid begins to wear off.
More targeted medication
The research, which has been published in the journal Science, paves the way for further studies into developing more targeted treatments for chronic pain. As brain circuits for pain tend to be very similar among different species, it’s thought likely that the same mechanism occurs in humans.
Opioids can be very effective in relieving pain. However, they are a blunt weapon and unavoidably also affect other areas of the brain. Being more targeted in their approach, future medications may be capable of replicating the pain relieving effect of opioids, but without the collateral damage or the risk of addiction.
A long way off
Unfortunately, for those already suffering chronic pain, such medications are likely to be a long way off. One crucial area that the researchers are already looking into is whether the neurons concerned are working in conjunction with other areas of the brain. If so, these mechanisms would need to be fully understood before more targeted drugs could be developed.