Unlocking The Pain Key
First Published: Southern Health News - February 2009
Developing a new generation of analgesics that target pain deep within the body is in the long-term sights of neuroscientists at Flinders Medical Centre.
The research team, headed by Professor Simon Brookes from the Flinders Centre for Neuroscience, hopes their work will eventually contribute to the development of targeted pain therapies for a range of conditions including deep muscle pain, heart burn, cystitis and irritable bowel syndrome.
Understanding how nerve endings in the gut wall work is crucial to developing these therapies, according to Simon.
‘Everything we do, everything we learn and everything we respond to is governed by our senses such as touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing,’ Simon said. ‘In practically every medical condition there are changes in sensation; the most obvious one being pain.’
Simon said while sensory nerve cells – the first step in experiencing sensation – were well understood for sensations from the skin, ie. hot and cold detectors, touch and pain detectors, scientists had poor understanding of deep tissue sensory nerves.
Professor Brookes and his colleagues have spent the past decade studying a series of sensory nerve sets within the gut and more recently, the bladder.
‘We have been able to characterise three major sets of sensory neurons in the gut that are responsible for sending information from the gut to the brain and have recently added a fourth set,’ Simon said.
The research team was responsible for discovering the role of nerve endings in the wall of the stomach that were first described more than 70 years ago, but whose function had remained a mystery. They turned out to be the nerves that tell the brain when the stomach is full after a meal.
Discovering these nerves may help identify new targets for drugs which could create better outcomes for a range of conditions, including invoking a sense of fullness sooner in obesity, reducing heartburn episodes or better pain management.
More recently the group identified another type of nerve ending that is involved in signalling pain from the intestines.
‘Most people experience unpleasant sensations from the gastrointestinal tract at some stage in their life, ranging from short-term nausea and vomiting to severe pain. Discovering these nerves may help identify new targets for drugs that could create better outcomes for a wide range of patients,’ Simon said.