The Science of Pain Reveals How Brain Turns It Up and Down

Pain receptors are a vital tool for survival, but surprisingly the brain doesn’t send pain with equal intensity for similar traumatic events. Illustrative examples can be brought by soldiers reporting they didn’t feel a thing while they got shot on the battlefield. Can we take the lead from the brain and diminish the suffering when pain is not necessary?

New research that appeared in Cell Reports on Tuesday gave a complex insight into the brain mechanisms that enhance or decrease these pain signals. It works in the same manner as a home thermostat sets the temperature in a room.

The chamber of pain appears to be mostly the central amygdala, according to Yarimar Carrasquillo, the paper’s senior author and a scientist for the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

Carrasquillo and her collaborators noticed on mice that the neurons responsible for protein kinase C-delta are able to magnify the pain, while the somatostatin neurons can curb the pathways of pain.

Carrasquillo outlines that the amygdala is not the only one in charge of this, and once removed, “the ‘ouch’ of things, or the protective pain, would remain intact.”

She adds that the amygdala is something that always expects inflicted discomfort, pain, stress, or anxiety.

Is Pain Necessary?

Pain is a life-saving indicator; for example, when it comes to heart attacks or appendicitis. It may seem a stroke of luck to be born ‘immune’, but science proves that people born with pain insensitivity have a higher odds of premature death.

But suffering is not all beneficial. A 2012 survey affirms that 11 percent of US adults get through daily pain, and more than 17 percent encounter major pains.

Many times these statistics are linked with pain killer addictions, as well as people trying to self-medicate with counterfeit or illicit drugs and expose themselves to deadly fentanyl.

This research opened the gates to a better understanding of pain variations and an improved approach to those types of pain that are not useful to establish a diagnosis. Scientists hope to find a cure that will minimise the burden in future. Carrasquillo added:

The healthy response is you get pain, it tells you something is wrong, it heals, and the pain goes away. In chronic pain, that doesn’t happen, the system gets stuck. If we can identify what makes the system gets stuck, then we can reverse it.

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