Neuroscientists Link Nervous System to Arthritis

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NGFArthritis is a painful and often debilitating condition affecting millions of people. And while the inflammation and joint damage caused by arthritis are not exactly news, there is a decidedly poor selection of adequate treatments for the condition. Over the counter treatments don’t always properly address a patient’s symptoms, while prescription medications cause serious side effects that only get worse when taken long term. But a new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience conducted by scientists at McGill University, is adding to the rapidly growing collection of evidence that nerve growth factor and the nervous system play a major role in human arthritis. The study is the first step in discovering a more effective arthritis treatment.

Nerve growth factor (NGF) is a protein that helps the growth of nerves. It’s also been linked to causing pain, and it’s this link that may hold the key to the neuroscience community’s future breakthroughs in arthritis medication. Using lab rats with inflamed and arthritic joints, researchers investigated subtle changes in the tissue and nerves surrounding the arthritis itself.

Once the onset of arthritis had been observed in the rats, scientists noticed a marked difference in the sympathetic nerve fibers in the area. Usually, these nerve fibers regulate the flow of blood within blood vessels. But following the arthritis diagnosis, the same fibers began sprouting and anchoring themselves into the swollen skin over the joint instead. They also began to wrap themselves tightly around the pain-sensing nerve centers. The NGF levels in this inflamed skin also began to steadily rise.

Human arthritis patients have shown considerable increases in their NGF levels, leading neuroscientists and physicians to link the nerve growth factor to the painful swelling and loss of mobility that accompanies an arthritis diagnosis. The researchers then began using an outside agent to block the nerve fiber’s function. The results were an almost immediate decrease in pain behavior in the rats.

In the future, this same principle may lead to a complete rethinking of the approach we take towards arthritis treatment.

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