How you experience pain may depend on your lifestyle.
Everyone is familiar with pain, but no one fully understands its underlying molecular mechanisms. Scientists at King’s College, London, are doing something about that. In a recent study they found that life style and environmental factors that affect the epigenome, such as diet, smoking, drinking and exposure to pollution, might also alter a person’s sensitivity to pain.
The study, published in Nature Communications, assessed genome-wide DNA methylation in 25 pairs of identical twins who differed in their sensitivity to heat pain. Since identical twins have the same genetic make up, differences in pain sensitivity are likely due to epigenetic differences caused by environmental factors. After screening millions of gene regions, they found significant differences in nine genes that have been previously associated with pain sensitivity in animal experiments, with the strongest signal in the pain gene TRPA1.
These results were supported by screening results from 50 unrelated individuals: The same nine genes with significant DNA methylation differences in the twins had the highest levels of methylation for unrelated individuals who were most sensitive to heat pain.
This research points to potential advances in the understanding of pain and its management. Screening for epigenetically altered pain genes could help in the selection of the most effective painkillers for individual patients. It could also lead to the identification of new drug targets. And it may offer yet one more good reason to quit smoking.