Pain is one of those feelings which if not all, most of us would never like to encounter and forget our previous encounters as well. However pain has been a necessary evil as it enables our bodies to recognize the occurrence of injuries or other problems which may not be always visible to our eyes, thus preventing further damage.
The International Association for the Study of Pain's widely used definition defines pain as "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage".
Before discovery of neurons responsible for pain by Charles Scott Sherrington in 1906 and the role of nociceptors, various theories were proposed to explain the origin of pain. Ancient Greeks including Hippocrates believed that it was due to an imbalance in vital fluids.
Now a team of researchers from Karolinska Institutet have now discovered a new sensory receptor organ in the skin that is sensitive to hazardous environmental irritation.
Conventionally pain has been thought to be initiated by activation of free nerve endings without end organs in the skin. In contrast to this paradigm, Abdo et al. discovered a previously unknown meshlike organ covering the skin that senses dangerous environmental stimuli. This organ is built from specialized glial cells with multiple long protrusions and which collectively go to make up a mesh-like organ within the epidermal-dermal border of skin. This organ is sensitive to painful mechanical damage such as pricks and pressure.
The present study describes what the new pain-sensitive organ looks like, how it is organised together with pain-sensitive nerves in the skin and how activation of the organ results in electrical impulses in the nervous system that result in reflex reactions and an experience of pain. In their experiments, the researchers also blocked the organ and saw a resultant decreased ability to feel mechanical pain.
"Our study shows that sensitivity to pain does not occur only in the skin's nerve fibres, but also in this recently-discovered pain-sensitive organ. The discovery changes our understanding of the cellular mechanisms of physical sensation and it may be of significance in the understanding of chronic pain," says Prof. Patrik Ernfors, professor at Karolinska Institutet's Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics and chief investigator for the study.
The research was carried out with financial assistance from ERC, the Swedish Research Council, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation and Welcome Trust.
1. Abdo H, Calvo-Enrique L, Martinez Lopez J, Song J, Zhang MD, Usoskin D, El Manira A, Adameyko I, Hjerling-Leffler J, Ernfors P. Specialized cutaneous Schwann cells initiate pain sensation. Science, 2019 DOI: 10.1126/science.aax6452
2. Image source: Karolinska Instituet
3. Source article: Karolinska Instituet
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