Painful Touch? Study Identifies Nerve Cell Stiffness and Possible New Painkiller

Painful Touch? Study Identifies Nerve Cell Stiffness and Possible New Painkiller

By Staff

There’s a type of chronic pain that occurs with the lightest of touch, and it is infuriating.  For some, just having clothing touch their skin sends them into agony.  Hopefully, there may be a treatment on the horizon now that scientists have found a possible avenue for producing painkillers that specifically target and treat this kind of pain.

In a study published online today in eLife, they discovered how the stiffness of our nerve cells influences sensitivity to touch and pain.

“Being able to stop this mechanical pain could be very powerful, and it’s something that current drugs are not very good at doing,” says Paul Heppenstall, who led the work at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL).

When one is touched either slightly or with some force, receptors on the nerves under the skin sense it and carry that information to the brain.  Those receptors detect and respond to the actual bending of the nerve cell’s membrane, and now scientists have discovered the molecule that affects how sensitive a mouse is to touch and pain.  Scientists have figured out how to influence how stiff or “bendy” a nerve cell is, and that shows promise for future developments.

The researchers genetically engineered mice so that they were unable to produce a molecule called Atat1.  They found that the nerve cells in the affected mice became stiffer and insensitive to light touch and to mechanical pain.  This happened both when they prevented all of a mouse’s cells from producing the molecule and when they did so just in the mouse’s sensory neurons.

The Atat1 molecule is present in all cells.  Its role is to modify microtubules – tiny tubes that act as transport network and scaffolding inside cells – and that this happens in all cells, especially in nerve cells.

“It could be that the molecule also affects the stiffness of nerves involved in other senses, but because stiffness is not important for detecting smells or tastes, for example, changes in cell stiffness might not have a detectable effect on those senses,” says Shane Morley, who carried out the work at EMBL.

They found that the difference between nerve cells that detect touch and other cells is how the microtubules are arranged.  In sensory cells, they form a ring just below the cell membrane, while in other cells, they don’t.  The scientists think that this ring probably fine-tunes how stiff or bendy a nerve cell’s membrane is, influencing how sensitive that cell is to touch.

“We’re now looking for small molecules that interfere with this fine-tuning of cell stiffness, and which might one day be used to make painkillers specifically to treat this mechanical pain,” Heppenstall said. “This is the first step in our sense of touch, so if we can stop the signal there, then we have a good chance of stopping everything which is downstream.  And because only these touch-sensing nerve cells would be affected, there’s hope that such a drug might not have many unwanted side-effects.”

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Authored by: Staff

There are 17 comments for this article
  1. Jean Price at 5:36 pm

    Dave…there is something about all this “dreaded opioid” craziness, all the scientific deceit, and the continued abusive medical care that is really pushing my “rebel button”!! (One I reserve for very few life battles!) I’m so fed up, even though I believe my situation is either better than others are going through or else I tend to project more caring attitudes on the people I deal with! It breaks my heart to hear what kind of treatment so many are struggling to survive! And, like so many, I do find myself not really in a zone of fully treating my pain, but rather reducing my life to fit within the imposed boundaries of the medications and treatments allowed! That’s not good care…in anyone’s book. We all realize pain happens…but unnecessary pain, due to lack of appropriate treatment, is abusive and barbaric!

    I keep wondering if just maybe it’s time for a confrontational approach regarding our advocacy groups!! Telling them we won’t participate unless they restructure to get more action, more outcomes, and more success as a committed WHOLE…instead of being so fractured! Maybe they won’t care if they have no followers, members, or readers—but you’d think they might…since we are supposedly their target audience and their target recruits!! I think it’s worth a try!

    It really wouldn’t be logistically that hard for ALL the group’s to throw in together! I’ve worked up a COALITION outline….and even in the draft stage, it has to be better than what all we have going now! Which is everyone doing their own thing and going off in different directions, some repetitions yet some areas left untouched…and all without the numbers to get the attention needed. They make little headway! And I think this could change through a concerted, combined effort…A COALITION of all the groups to concentrate numbers, resources, talent, AND hopefully IMPACT!! (My only problem was in figuring out who can…and will…orchestrate it. It would need several strong leaders, and I am not at a point to be able to dedicate the activity needed….and neither are most of those I’ve met!!)

    So, I’ve wondered if we all just faded into the woodwork…would our advocacy groups know it? Or consider it worth their while to find out what’s wrong? I don’t have the energy nor want the CONSTANT STRIFE of working on or with a fractured group, with a “mission impossible” because they just don’t have enough heads and bodies to get the job done CONSISTENTLY AND FOLLOW THROUGH will ALL THE DIFFERENT AREAS OF NEED FOR US! Yet I really believe we could resolve this if we worked as a coalition, combining ALL groups while each retained their autonomy— yet planing out and delegating areas for each group to specialize in! Otherwise, we have too many fronts to fight on!! It’s like we’re surrounded, outflanked, have little ammunition, no replacement troops, and sporadic numbers of people in the trenches, and also sporadic leadership. (This isn’t a criticism,’s the plain facts of living in pain and trying to advocate for ourselves when we have limited resources in every category, especially those that may require being mobile and functional! Or at least out of bed! And it’s the reality of having too many groups who don’t seem to even communicate!)

    Many people have said they want to help. I want to help where I can, too. But I feel like I spin my wheels at best…and I’m not the only one in this spot! I’m not willing to give up my personal peace for any work that doesn’t stand a chance of success…and so far, I’ve not see much happening that does! Maybe if we rebel and say NO MORE to our groups, they’ll be less likely to resist working together and agree to start putting egos and personal agendas to the side. There is little use of committing to give up our sacred energy and stamina AND peace to fight this when we don’t seem to make any impact or make inroads! And although I’m not the most patient person in the world, I think we’ve given this long enough to see the need for reorganizing our efforts for a whole scale revision! True, it would take a lot of effort…and a GENUINE willingness to work together…YET THE RESULTS COULD BE SOMETHING WE COULD ALL APPLAUD! Righting these wrongs, setting the record straight about the need for pain medication for life limiting pain would be worth it, wouldn’t it!?!

  2. connie at 3:00 am

    Scott Michaels, Too many of us have met that kind of doctor. I often wonder if some medical schools actually teach “how to treat a patient as less than human”! What happened to doctors who actually care about their patients? Doctors have always tended to have a god complex but it seems that they are getting worse when it comes to bedside manners. I hope you are able to somehow get to a decent pain management doctor.

  3. Kristi M at 10:24 pm

    Scott Michaels, I would definitely find another Dr. I wouldn’t even bother going back to the one you were writing about. What I would do is give feedback on websites that she is listed on. You just google her name and some websites should pop up. I would also contact the Medical Review Board and report her. I would also contact the her office manager and make a complaint. Unfortunately, you can’t sue her for not giving you medications. But reporting her to the contacts I mentioned would be a start.
    I’m so sick of Dr’s blowing their patients off. It’s really unethical. I have always advocated for myself since I became sick over 12 years ago. If we don’t stand up for ourselves, nobody will. Best of luck.

  4. Kristi M at 10:15 pm

    I have severe allodynia from Fibro and Dercums Disease. With Dercums, I’m supposed to wear compression garments and I just can’t. A pin prick will even cause pain. I almost pass out at the Dr’s office from the BP cuff. I am lucky to have a great Pain Management Dr who actually talks and helps me. My “normal” pain is pretty well controlled for the most part but the allodynia is just awful.

  5. scott michaels at 7:35 pm

    kaiser and their doctors are not caring about patients. They only care about the almighty buck. I asked for a referral to a pain mgt doctor close to my house. they are over 50 miles away and there is only 1 car in the house. I can’t drive any long distance cause of my pain.
    the pain doctor at corona took a 5 minute exam and said my pain medication is causing my pain. once i was done rolling my eyes. I reminded ger I have been on the same prescriptions for 5 years. now because of the drug addicts out there they are cutting me by 80 percent.
    she said the light touch she did shouldnt of hurt. LIE. SHE WENT RIGHT TO THE STENOSIS AREA AND PUSHED HER THUMB IN AS HARD AS SHE COULD

  6. Dave at 5:22 pm

    @ Jean- CPATF and PAINS worked together on the NPS-and i received, via a FOIA request the total monies spent so far on the NPS- you dont want to know how little has been spent, so far. I did not work with the CPATF or PAINS- and they certainly werent open to my input on pain issues- so if we expect some united front then much more civility is needed on the part of all. And civility requires a willingness to communicate- including communicating differences and hopefully finding some common ground. Unfortunately, for over 20 years certain groups set out to dominate pain care and werent interested in working with the rest of society to improve pain care- on the contrary they wanted the rest of society to stand aside while they controlled pain care.
    And so while i have advocated for a more united front- it is clear too many groups and individuals involved in pain care arent prepared for the give and take for the forming, storming, norming required to form some type of group to address pain care.
    Whilst some make much of pain mechanisms and a new antipathic drug to address another aspect of pain- even Dennis Turk- a prominant pain specialist has indicated in the past that he doesnt see what a new medication fr pain making a big difference. And in fact, in the most recent IPRCC meeting Dr Kroshetz indicated drug companies told him they werent interested in new biomarker discoveries for pain. And so there is cause to be skeptical of new and improved antipathic drugs for pain. Wh can believe they wont be costly, be minimally effective and have side effects . And so the antipathic paradigm is no longer convincing to some. And the evidence shws for almost every pain condition there isnt a single reliable diagnostic or prognostic wet biomarker. So why should anyne in pain or anyone who cares about pain get excited about a new biomarker or new drug based on biomarkers? Its time to develop a new paradigm for pain research that doesnt have the shortcomings of antipathic biomarker medicine. I have called for regenerative medicne-and billins have been invested in such with little deployment-for doctors are still stuck on the antipathic paradigm. In fact, the antipathic paradigm threatens to use regenerative medicine antipathically.
    Yours truly was the only person who advcated fr cures in cmments to the NPS-and i was successful. Should I, give up my beliefs in cures and get with the antipathic paradigm of the pain specialists and their front groups in the CPATF? Will they see the light and recgnize the possibilities of curative treatment for pain? And the sikple truth is the antipathic folks have been prejudiced toward cures. Cures remain under researched due to the prejudice. And so i will not yield to prejudice toward cures. Let the pain specialists and CPATF prove that cures arent possible for pain- which they cannot do because of failure to explore the issue with any real effort. Let them continue to claim that the best that is possible for people in pain is pain management and that people like myself are wrong to advocate for cures. And i will continue to adovate for ridding ourselves of the subptimal pain management paradigm that is fatalistic and does too little for people in pain.

  7. Jean Price at 1:59 pm

    These comments seem to reflect a lot of us are hurting and fed up with having so few options!! While research seems to move slowly…or maybe not at all…as far as the cause of pain and preventing it!! Finding the mechanisms that cause pain with touch could be important…IF they could then figure out what to do with this information when they find it! Yet manipulating human cells with medications and/or other means seems a ways off. I’d be glad to participate…I’m in tears putting on support stockings due to such severe skin pain over the lower half of my legs! Yet there doesn’t even seem to be a way for all of us to know what studies are happening and how to sign up! Maybe most of this is in the animal stage, but at some point I’d think they would want a cache of patients to draw from for the next phase of trials! Wonder if our organizations could help with this? But then…I wonder if they could help with a lot of other things related to pain, too! And it feels like we are still in a quagmire as far as all our advocacy is concerned! Maybe next year we can get real…form an action oriented coalition of ALL the groups, work together, delegate areas of concentrated emphasis, and actually have results!! Maybe we can…but it’s hard to get them all on the same page…and all of us, too! And also hard to keep having the commitment to do a better job of advocating and supporting those in pain when we seem to have such a huge opposition to treating pain appropriately! I won’t stop praying that we find a way!

  8. carol levy at 9:54 am

    The negative comments are an example of why we dont seem to get anywhere. Instead of embracing research the response is Oh yeah. Baloney. instead of thinking it through and understanding that this is not going to come wihtin a day or even a year. Each step forward is a step forward. Complain instead of be proactive and we get nowhere. Thank you for posting this Zyp.

  9. connie at 2:17 am

    Angelica, I am one of those who would be very affected by this if it were to come to fruition in my lifetime. I haven’t been able to properly hug my husband and children for over ten years! I am just passed the point of getting excited over scientists and their experiments and big promises that end up either going nowhere or causing more pain. Even if they come up with a miracle drug I wouldn’t trust in it enough to try it myself until it was on the market for ten years and we start seeing and hearing about the horrendous side effects that more often than not come with the claim of miracles. I don’t want to be a guinea pig ever again after being given Lyrica and Cymbalta and suffering permanent damage because of them!

  10. scott michaels at 9:43 pm

    The director of the CDC Tom
    does not take emails from us real people. I suggest we all write our stories to President elect Trump. Everybody. hit him with tens of thousands of real letters spend the 60cents. We won’t be ignored. especially if your a vet having your meds taken away!!!!!!
    what are you waiting for. send them now to trump tower.

  11. StevefromMA at 5:18 pm

    Yes, another optimistic conjecture about the future, which is always in the future. From the sound of it I thought a drug was already developed.

  12. Sandy M. at 1:29 pm

    I hurt too bad to type today but, yes, sounds like another pipe dream to me too! I’m really so fed up, I could care less what these so called scientist and everyone thinks anymore. We had doctors who know what each of us are going thru individually, but our Nazis government of course knows more and what is best for us…..NOT! I don’t like to wish bad things on anyone but I pray the Good Lord will someday let them understand. feel and know what we are all going thru and there is not a darn thing to do about this miserable life. Amen to all of you, I’m glad I’m not alone in this horrific PAIN we go thru each day and as it continues to worsen. Thanks again to the wonderful, kind doctors who write here and understand our pain.

  13. Angelica Heavner at 9:54 am

    I see a few nasty comments concerning this article. For some of us that have nerves that are turned on all the time and suffer from the pain of being touched this is progress. Its one step closer to getting the meds right to help calm the nerves back down where they belong. Remember without hope we are all screwed.
    My only request is please hurry this process up. To many are dying from disorders that have no real treatment options and cant deal with the nerve pain anymore.

  14. connie at 8:22 am

    Yet another pipe dream for people in pain. Perhaps by the time my grandkids who have yet to be conceived will not be forced to live in pain because of opiate Nazis who don’t have a clue!

  15. Maria Molaro at 7:33 am

    Is this supposed to be news? Everybody with nerve pain already knows this. Is this supposed to offer hope?!! That someday, somebody will identify this? And then someday, somebody will find a way to help with the pain of overactive nerves? Maybe someday, somebody will find a “non-opiod ” method of reducing the pain that so many people have to try to live through , everyday?! I don’t really want to come off so sarcastic, but I am being pushed closer to the edge, month by month, by doctors that keep reducing medication. And it’s killing us off, slowly…maybe faster than I know. Why don’t we try to get some stats on how many of us have “gotten done” with this excruciating process of being under-medicated this past year or two. I hope they find an answer…I hope we are all here when it gets figured out… I hope, I hope, I hope….

  16. Dave at 5:43 am

    Molecular biologists are learning more and more about less and less and hope the public and payors are as spellbound as they are with their discoveries and their certaintism. And I wonder is molecular biology a rebuke to what else we have learned about pain from sociology, psychology, medical anthropology, chiropractic and so on. Are those other discoveries from incommensurable paradigms worthless or irrelevant? And what is the relative contribution of molecular biology to any individual in chronic pain?
    It seems to me the molecular biologists make too much of what they know and too little of what they don’t know about- especially from other disciplines. And this is the failure of modern pain care- too many blind men looking at the elephants and no interest in the other blind men’s contributions and no interest in working together for the best possible outcomes for people in pain. Its time to change this modernistic approach to pain and interprofessionalize pain care as well as allow all stakeholders a fair opportunity to participate in creating our pain care system. Let us have the advantage of a more united and fair pain care system where molecular biologists will recognize their role is to work with other aspects of society in a cooperative fashion to create a more perfect pain care system. And hopefully the molecular biologists care enough about pain care to come off their high horses to work with the rest of society.