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Scientists Discover a Gene for Pain Thanks to Some Super-Tough Italians

This could lead to new pain relievers that mute the sensation without increasing the risk of addiction.

Pain is the body’s way of protecting itself, and communicating to our conscious mind that something is terribly wrong. We all have varying sensitivity to it. Recent research has found that how sensitive or tolerant you are to pain depends on your genetic makeup. Today, 25 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. That’s about 11% of the population. This is moderate to severe pain occurring every day for three straight months. 


Experts say the chronic pain epidemic has contributed heavily to the opioid crisis. Because of this, medical researchers have been looking to find a pain control method that isn’t addictive. Unfortunately, we don’t have a good grip of all the ins and outs of pain and how it works in the central and parasympathetic nervous system. But advancements in this understanding are happening all the time. For instance, we’ve recently learned that genes may have more to do with it than we thought.

Take the curious case of an Italian family who can hardly feel pain. Researchers at University College London (UCL) recently identified the Marsili family and the genetic underpinnings of a condition they all share, congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP). The family includes a 78-year-old grandmother, her two daughters and their three children.


Since our understanding of pain is limited, we rely on opioid painkillers for chronic pain. But these are highly addictive and not very effective long-term. Credit: Getty Images.

Those with CIP hardly feel any pain at all. While that may sound like a euphoric lifestyle, the condition means people can easily hurt themselves, very seriously, without even noticing it. Children with it have little to prevent them from taking part in reckless behavior. Moreover, should one be unlucky enough to develop a health problem where pain is the symptom that tells that something is wrong, that illness can develop until it’s in a late stage, unbeknownst to the person who has it.

When UCL experts examined the family, they found that some of them had fractures they weren’t even aware of. James Cox was one researcher on this project. He hails from the University’s Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research.

Cox told New Scientist, “Sometimes they feel pain in the initial break but it goes away very quickly. For example, Letizia broke her shoulder while skiing, but then kept skiing for the rest of the day and drove home. She didn’t get it checked out until the next day.” Cox said they can burn themselves and not feel a thing. And for those who enjoy the spicy tingle a chili pepper delivers, pity the poor members of the Marsili family, who are immune to such a sensation.


Not feeling the pain sensation sounds heavenly. Yet, we would miss recognizing when the body has been seriously injured. Credit: Getty Images.

Led by Cox, the researchers team conducted a series of experiments on the family. They found the Italians had a normal level of nerves on the surface of their skin, what’s known as intra-epidermal nerve fiber density. Next, they studied the genomes of family members. Here, the scientists hit pay dirt. They found a mutation in the gene ZFHX2.

Next, they bred special mice without the gene. Cox and colleagues discovered they were far more tolerant to pain than normal mice. But counterintuitively, they became more sensitive to heat. This tells Cox and colleagues that the gene may play a role in regulating what pain sensations an individual experiences. This gene seems to control the activity of 16 of its counterparts, scientists say.

The next piece is to sort out how each gene involved in this network contributes or what role it plays. Cox and his team say more than one gene is involved. But this allows for the discovery of a new target, which could lead to the development of a novel, non-addictive pain reliever. As for the Marsili’s, Cox and colleagues told them they might be able to knock out the mutation and give them normal pain sensations, but the family said they’re good. They want to stay as they are.

Want to learn about a non-pharmaceutical method pain control? Click here:

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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