Orbiting Tomorrow

Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.

Shutting Off The Shivers: Scientists Freeze Out Cold, Pain

Here’s some cool news to give you chills—a team at USC has developed a way to shut off cold-sensing ability in mice. They hope the discovery will lead to advanced pain treatments.

Previously, the lead researcher on the team discovered a link between the sensation of cold and a protein called TRPM8 (pronounced trip-em-ate). In this experiment, the researchers isolated neurons that express TRPM8 in mice and ablated them with a chemical toxin. (Fun fact: the same neural pathways sense menthol, the cooling component in mint.)

They then tracked the mice’s movements on a multi-temperature surface ranging from 0 degrees to 50 degrees Celsius (32 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit). Mice in the control group preferred the balmy regions around 30 Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), avoiding extremely hot and cold areas. The altered mice also stayed away from hot spots, but were much more likely to remain on freezing surfaces, even when the temperature should have been painfully cold. In other tests that measured the mice’s grip strength, coordinated movement, and responses to touch, the two groups showed no difference, indicating the altered mice suffered no loss of touch feeling.

The team hopes their research could lead to improved treatments for pain sufferers. “The problem with pain drugs now is that they typically just reduce inflammation…or they knock out all sensation, which often is not desirable,” said lead researcher David McKemy. “One of our goals is to pave the way for medications that address the pain directly, in a way that does not leave patients completely numb.”

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Mice on ice!

Insensitivity to cold may sound like a B-grade superpower, but it suggests many curious possibilities.

The research is intended for application in the medical field, and here seems to be its greatest promise. If we can isolate and destroy neurons that relay the discomfort of cold, maybe we could do the same for neurons that transmit other types of pain. Many chronic pain sufferers face the choice of alleviating their pain or coping with a slew of unpleasant side effects. For others, medications become increasingly ineffective. Quality of life for these people would be drastically improved if there were a way to desensitize them to pain without leaving them numb.

Once the technique advances to that point, we’re in classic science fiction territory. We’ve all seen some variation on the super-soldier theme: people impervious to pain. Insert futuristic war story here. Cold or pain resistance could be handy not just for fighters, but for all kinds of people working in extreme environments, such as…Mars?

One persistent issue in discussion of interplanetary colonization is that of extreme temperatures. (Nighttime temperatures on the moon, for example, drop as low as 173 degrees Celsius.) Inhibiting TRMP-8 won’t stop flesh from freezing, but it might allow someone to resist the debilitating effects of cold for a period of time—perhaps long enough to transfer between shelters or fix a critical piece of machinery. What if pain desensitization were standard treatment for settlers, to increase their stamina? But would eliminating pain eliminate part of our living experience that makes us human?

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This entry was posted on February 15, 2013 by in Health, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , .
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