Does our immune system control pain?

Adelaide research shows way to pain prediction test

There’s a global pain epidemic, despite the availability of various drug and non-drug treatments. A breakthrough by Australian researchers may lead to a new era of pain control.

“We still don’t fully understand pain,” says Mark Hutchinson from the University of Adelaide. He has discovered a strong link between our immune system and how we feel pain. His results, published this month in the journal Pain, could revolutionise the prevention and control of pain.

“The brain and nerves were traditionally thought to control pain signalling. While neurons are vital to pain, our experience with pain medications led us to investigate what role the immune system might play in pain,” Mr Hutchinson says.

“85% of the cells in the brain are immune-like cells and I had an idea these cells might be involved in pain control.”

Mr Hutchinson’s research led to the discovery of a simple blood test that uses morphine to produce a response in the collected immune cells which can be used to predict pain tolerance.

“A simple blood test is much easier than asking for a brain tissue sample.”

“While the science behind the blood test remains a mystery to us, we believe it is possible our test reflects the activity of brain immune cells.  We appear to have stumbled across a biological pain dimmer switch that is controlled by the immune system.”

The finding may lead to the development of new pain treatments targeting both the immune system and the brain.

Pain and the associated suffering, is a global health problem, costing society in excess of A$12billion per annum in Australia and US$100billion in USA.

“Our discovery will initially accelerate pain research focussing on the way the immune system controls pain. Subsequent research will then be required to further develop the pain blood test and new pain medications,” Mr Hutchinson says.

“This research has opened a window into the brain, which will enable us to significantly expand our understanding of how we feel pain and why some people feel pain more. Furthermore, our findings may help to explain the variable response people have to the available pain medications and treatments,” Mr Hutchinson says.

“We have to thank our volunteers who altruistically participated in our studies and put themselves through several very painful close encounters with very very cold water during the pain tests.”

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