How Chronic Pain Changes Nerve Signals

By Pat Anson, Editor

Swedish researchers have developed a surprising new theory about what causes chronic nerve pain and why it is so difficult to treat.  

It has long been assumed that some sensory neurons only transmit pleasant tactile sensations, while others specialize in transmitting pain. But scientists at Karolinska Institutet have discovered that neurons that normally allow us to feel a caress or soft touch can switch roles and start signaling pain after nerve damage.

The researchers identified a small RNA molecule (microRNA) in neuron cells that regulates how touch is perceived. Levels of the molecule drop after neurons are damaged, which raises levels of a specific ion channel that makes the nerves sensitive to pain.

"Our study shows that touch-sensitive nerves switch function and start producing pain, which can explain how hypersensitivity arises," says Professor Patrik Ernfors at Karolinska Institutet's Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics.

"What's interesting about our study is that we can show that the RNA molecule controls the regulation of 80 per cent of the genes that are known to be involved in nerve pain. My hope, therefore, is that microRNA-based drugs will one day be a possibility."

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The research was primarily conducted on mice but also verified in tests on human tissue, where low microRNA levels could be linked to high levels of the ion channel and vice versa, suggesting that the mechanism is the same in humans. Researchers believe the study findings, published in the journal Science, could lead to more effective pain treatments   

"It's vital that we understand the mechanisms that lead to chronic nerve pain so that we can discover new methods of treatment," says Ernfors. "The pharmaceutical companies have concentrated heavily on substances that target ion channels and receptors in pain neurons, but our results show that they might have been focusing on the wrong type of neuron."

Neuropathy and chronic nerve pain are common conditions, but the drugs available to treat them have limited efficacy. One widely used medication that blocks ion channels -- gabapentin (Neurontin) – is only effective in about half of the patients who take it, according to Ernfors.