July 20, 2024

Lukmaan IAS

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DISCOVERY OF SEX-SPECIFIC PAIN-SENSING CELLS

TAG: GS 3: SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

THE CONTEXT: A groundbreaking study led by researchers from the University of Arizona Health Sciences, published in the journal Brain, has provided the first evidence of functional sexual dimorphism in nociceptors—the nerve cells responsible for detecting and relaying pain signals to the brain.

EXPLANATION:

  • This finding is pivotal in understanding how pain is perceived differently by men and women and paves the way for developing sex-specific pain treatments.
  • Pain, an unpleasant but essential sensory experience, serves as our body’s warning system to potential harm.
  • The International Association for the Study of Pain defines it as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”
  • While pain perception is highly personal and subjective, recent research has uncovered that it might also be sexually dimorphic, meaning it differs between biological men and women.

Mechanism of Pain Perception

  • Role of Nociceptors
    • Nociceptors are specialized nerve cells with bare nerve endings located throughout the skin, bones, joints, and muscles.
    • They detect extreme pressure, temperature changes, and chemical signals from injuries, converting these stimuli into electrical signals that travel to the brain via the spinal cord.
    • Once the brain receives these signals, it interprets them as pain.
  • Activation Threshold of Nociceptors
    • Previous studies have indicated that the response threshold of nociceptors is generally lower in females than in males.
    • This means that females may perceive pain at lower intensities compared to males.
    • The biological mechanism behind this difference, known as peripheral nociceptor sensitization, involves lowering the activation threshold of nociceptors due to external factors.

Study Methodology and Findings

  • Investigating Nociceptor Sensitization
    • The researchers examined how nociceptors are activated by studying nerve cell samples from mice, macaque monkeys, and humans.
    • They specifically looked at the dorsal root ganglion, a cluster of nerve cells near the spinal cord, to understand how easily these pain receptors could be excited.
  • Role of Prolactin and Orexin-B
    • The study explored the effects of two substances: prolactin and orexin-B. Prolactin, a hormone associated with breast tissue growth, has been found to promote pain responses selectively in female rodents.
    • Orexin-B, a neurotransmitter that regulates wakefulness, produces sensitization in male rodents.
    • The researchers cultured nerve cells overnight in the presence of prolactin and applied orexin-B to the samples.
  • Differential Sensitization Observed
    • The findings revealed that prolactin increased nociceptor activation in females, while orexin-B had a similar effect in males.
    • These results were consistent across mice, monkeys, and human samples, confirming that nociceptors from males and females can be differentially sensitized, meaning their activation thresholds can be lowered differently based on sex-specific factors.

Implications for Pain Treatment

  • Current Pain Management Practices
    • Currently, medical practitioners often overlook the sex of a patient when prescribing pain management therapies.
    • This approach is despite the known differences in the prevalence of various pain conditions between men and women.
    • For example, conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, and painful bladder syndrome are more common in women, while cluster headaches and gout are more prevalent in men.
  • Need for Sex-Specific Therapies
    • Understanding the different mechanisms driving nociceptor sensitization and activation is crucial for developing sex-specific pain therapies.
    • The study’s findings suggest that medical practitioners should consider the patient’s sex when designing pain management strategies.
    • This consideration could lead to more effective and tailored treatments for pain.
  • Re-evaluation of Clinical Trials
    • The study also implies that clinical trials for new pain treatments should include a balanced representation of men and women.
    • This approach would help identify any sex-specific effects of the therapies being tested.
    • Additionally, it may be beneficial to revisit previous clinical trials that were deemed failures to check for potential sex-specific responses that were not initially considered.

SOURCE: https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/scientists-find-proof-pain-sensing-cells-are-either-male-or-female/article68381018.ece

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