A team of scientists from Stanford University has pinpointed the cells in the brain responsible for the experience of pain in mice.
In new research, the team was able to alter the cells that make pain hurt, making it a lot less unpleasant without completely eliminating the sensation. This, they believe, paves the way for future the future treatment of chronic pain.
The papers were published in the journal Science.
The team of scientists used brain imaging and molecular testing to probe the brains of mice in order to find the region responsible for the emotional experience of pain. They found it in the amygdala, the region of the brain that process emotion and fear.
An ensemble of cells in the amygdala, the team explained, seems to specifically function as an "on-and-off switch" for pain.
"With this setup, we identified a set of neurons in the amygdala that selectively encodes signals related to the emotional aspects of a painful experience," explains Mark Schnitzer, an associate professor of biology and applied physics at Stanford and an author of the research.
The team of scientists conducted a couple of experiments in order to further probe whether the cells were indeed responsible for the emotional experience of pain. In one experiment, they temporarily disabled the bundle of pain neurons in the amygdala in selected mice. The scientists found that while the mice experienced the physical sensation of pain, they no longer found it unpleasant.
A Cure For Chronic Pain
Pain is necessary for the body to be alert and prevent it from further harm. However, for people who have chronic pain, they experience the unpleasant feeling without the danger.
While for now, the brain cells responsible for the emotional experience of pain has only been found in mice, the researchers believe that it would also be discovered in humans. They explained that the function of the basolateral ensemble is similar in mice and humans.
The team of scientists hopes that this will lead to the development of treatment for chronic pain. Gregory Scherrer, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and neurosurgery at Stanford and an author of the study, stated that chronic pain is one of the drivers of the current opioid crisis around the world.
"Our big future hope is that the cells in the basolateral ensemble could be tactic to curb the ailment of pain without causing addiction and thus, ideally, act as a possible substitute for opioid treatment," Scherrer shared.