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Surprising Science

Scientists Turn Off the Pain Switch

Scientists have discovered how to inhibit the activity of pain-sensitive neurons by using a chemical compound that works like a photosensitive switch, turning pain off when exposed to light.

What’s the Latest Development?

European and American scientists have discovered how to inhibit the activity of pain-sensitive neurons, switching them on and off by using a chemical compound called QAQ. The compound closely resembles lidocaine, a well-known anesthetic used by dentists. “The ion channel targeted by the lidocaine-like end of QAQ responds to heat by allowing positively charged sodium ions to pass into the cells that express it. This alters the electrical potential across the membrane, which ultimately leads to transmission of the nerve impulse.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Scientists have yet to make their research applicable to patient therapy since the monochromatic light used to activate the QAQ cannot penetrate human skin deeply enough to reach pain-sensitive neurons. In the next phase of scientists’ research, they will look for alternatives to QAQ that respond to “red light of longer wavelength, which more readily passes through the skin.” The advance might one day be used to treat acute, localized pain but would be extremely dangerous if used to keep the body from feeling all pain, which deters many harmful behaviors.

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