Hunting molecules that signal pain

A new microscope-based method for detecting a particular molecule in the spinal cord could help lead to an accurate and independent universal pain scale, research from Australia’s Macquarie University suggests.

Image credit: Jim De Ramos

Image credit: Jim De Ramos

An accurate way of measuring pain is of critical importance because at present degrees of discomfort are generally assessed by asking a patient to estimate pain on a one-to-10 scale. The situation is even more acute in the treatment of babies, the very old and animals, where speech is absent.

Image credit: Jim De Ramos

Image credit: Jim De Ramos

Now, researchers led by Dr Lindsay Parker may have come up with a solution.

“Even though pain can feel widespread in our bodies, the molecules that actually make us feel it are hard to find and quantify,” she says.

“By using a fluorescent chemical that has unique properties and a microscope adapted to see this chemical in the dimension of time instead of colour, we were able to see genes involved in chronic pain-related inflammation with a much greater sensitivity than the ways we normally see molecules on a regular microscope.”

These findings will help researchers identify hard-to-find molecules that correlate to levels of pain, providing for the first time a measure that does not depend on self-reporting or a clinician’s best guess.

Dr Parker and her colleagues – which include researchers from the University of Adelaide – hope that their work will lead to the development of the world’s first simple lab-based test for determining levels of pain.

The most recent research is published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation.

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