Pain perception is essential for survival, but how much hurt can sometimes be amplified or suppressed: for example, soldiers who have been injured in battle often remember not feeling anything at the time.
A new study published in Cell Reports on Tuesday honed the brain circuitry responsible for upgrading or downgrading these pain signals, comparing the mechanism to how a home thermostat controls room temperature.
Yarimar Carrasquillo, senior author of the paper and scientist at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), told AFP that the region responsible was the central amygdala, which, according to her work, seemed to play a dual role.
Studying mice, Carrasquillo and her colleagues found that activity in neurons that express protein kinase C-delta amplified pain, while neurons that express somatostatin inhibited the nerve activity chain needed to communicate pain.
Experienced pain can be a critical sign to seek help, for example, in a person with appendicitis or a heart attack.
People who are born with pain insensitivity, however, often do not know the severity of wounds and are at higher risk of early death.
But not all of the pain is beneficial. According to the 2012 report, about 11 percent of US adults experience pain every day and more than 17 percent have severe pain rates.
This often leads to dependency on strong painkillers, such as opioids, and attempts to self-medicate through synthetic or illicit drugs that are rapidly contaminated with deadly fentanyl.
Through better understanding the brain processes responsible for pain control, scientists hope to eventually find better cures: possibly those that address only those sources of pain that are “evil” and not useful.
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