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.

The Sopranos.
The Sopranos. Credit: Getty Images.

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:

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Your genetics influence how resilient you are to the cold

What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science

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Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
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