Although not as much money is being spent on understanding pain as doctors would like, there is still some promising research taking place throughout the world. For example, new research published in Nature Neuroscience took a closer look at re-wiring the brain’s transmitters when it mistakenly interprets signals as pain.
The research began by looking at mice who had peripheral nerve damage and chronic pain from a previous leg surgery. In these mice, a broken circuit in the pain-processing region of the brain caused hyperactivity that led to pain for more than a month. Scientists realized that the peripheral nerve damage deactivated a set of interconnected brain cells, called somatostatin (SOM), which usually work to lessen pain signals.
Fixing The Broken Circuit
Researchers were interested in learning if this connection could be fixed, and if it could, how we’d go about repairing it. One method they tried was to manually activate the SOM interneurons, and they found that this led to a significant decrease in the development of chronic pain.
“Our findings suggest that manipulating interneuron activity after peripheral nerve injury could be an important avenue for the prevention of pyramidal neuron over-excitation and the transition from acute postoperative pain to chronic centralized pain,” the authors, led by neuroscientist Guang Yang at New York University School of Medicine, conclude. They believe future drug therapies or magnetic brain stimulation could mend these SOM interneuron connections and prevent pain signals from misfiring.
The authors are cautiously optimistic, but they realize that there is a big difference in the brains of mice and the brains of humans. The study needs to be repeated and the results verified before any similar testing in humans could take place, but it’s a start.
“Our study provides, to our knowledge, the first direct evidence that impaired SOM cell activity is involved in the development of neuropathic pain,” the researchers wrote.
They hope to confirm their results and examine whether manipulating other cells could play a role in the reduction of chronic pain. If they can, we may have specific cells in which to base our intervention techniques. This is exciting.
Thomas Cohn, MD
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