Page URL:

Pain sensitivity genes can be switched on or off depending on environment

10 February 2014
Appeared in BioNews 741

Lifestyle and environmental factors can alter sensitivity to pain by switching certain genes on or off, according to research from King's College London.

One in five people suffers from chronic or acute pain, but its underlying molecular mechanisms are not yet fully understood. The researchers hope that this study, which highlights the epigenetics behind pain, will provide new drug targets for painkillers.

Dr Jordana Bell, who led the study, said the results were 'very exciting and could lead to a more effective pain relief treatment for patients suffering with chronic pain'.

The study looked at 25 sets of identical twins with a different pain tolerance, where one twin had particularly low sensitivity. As identical twins share all their genes, any differences would be due to environmental differences causing epigenetic changes.

To determine their pain threshold, each twin had a heat probe attached to their arm, which became increasingly hot. When the heat became too painful, they pressed a button. The DNA of each twin was then screened and differences between the genes involved in pain sensitivity were examined.

Nine genes were found to have epigenetic differences that meant they were expressed differently when exposed to pain. The most significant chemical differences were seen in a known pain sensitivity gene, TRPA1, which is currently a therapeutic target in the development of some painkillers.

These results were confirmed by examining, in the same way, a group of 50 unrelated individuals.

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King's College London, said that epigenetic changes acted like a 'dimmer switch for gene expression'.

He added: 'This landmark study shows how identical twins, when combined with the latest technology to look at millions of epigenetic signals, can be used to find the small chemical switches in our genes that make us all unique - and in this case respond to pain differently'.

Differential methylation of the TRPA1 promoter in pain sensitivity
Nature Communications |  4 February 2014
Pain 'dimmer switch' discovered by UK scientists
BBC News |  5 February 2014
Pain sensitivity may be altered by environment
WebMD |  5 February 2014
Pain sensitivity may be influenced by lifestyle and environment
King's College London (press release) |  4 February 2014
Twins' pain sensitivity varies more than thought
CBC News |  4 February 2014
1 April 2019 - by Catherine Heffner 
Two rare gene variants have been discovered in a Scottish woman who lives a virtually pain-free life...
18 December 2017 - by Dr Rachel Huddart 
A newly identified genetic mutation causes members of an Italian family to be unable to feel pain and could lead to the development of new painkillers, research suggests...
14 December 2015 - by Jessica Richardson 
Scientists have discovered why people with a rare genetic mutation are unable to feel pain – a finding that could lead to treatments for chronic pain conditions...
2 November 2015 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
A recent study suggests that embryonic gene activity may be altered by factors present in the womb even before implantation. This finding triggered a somewhat misleading newspaper article entitled 'Infertile mums "pass on DNA"', which claimed the research means recipients of donor eggs are passing on their own DNA to their child. This isn't the case...
1 June 2015 - by Paul Waldron 
Scientists studying people who are unable to feel pain have found a gene responsible for this rare condition...
7 May 2013 - by Cristy Gelling 
Genetic mutations that cause an inherited sleep disorder also appear to be linked to migraine, scientists have found...
15 March 2010 - by Maren Urner 
A common gene variant has been linked to differences in pain sensitivity, according to a new study by scientists based at Cambridge University. The finding could help to explain why people have different pain thresholds and might help in the search for effective pain killers with tolerable side effects....
24 February 2003 - by BioNews 
The way in which people perceive physical and emotional pain is partly due to variations in a single gene, according to a team of US researchers. The gene, which comes in two different versions, makes a brain chemical known as COMT. People with one form of COMT are particularly sensitive...
26 July 1999 - by BioNews 
Researchers at Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) report that much human sensitivity to pain - and the varied response people have to opiate pain medicine - has a genetic basis. It seems that many of the differences in pain perception are likely to be due to variations...
to add a Comment.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.