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Researchers: mesh-like organ in skin lets us feel pain

It may not just be nerve endings that relay pain from your skin to your brain. Scientists have discovered a mesh-like organ within skin that communicates painful stimuli – and blocking the network in mice reduced their ability to sense pain.

The discovery may help doctors understand chronic pain – and maybe figure out a way to dampen it. 

A team of researchers at the Karolinska Institute found the network of glial cells within skin, which they’ve dubbed the nociceptive glio-neural complex. The glial cells that make up the mesh-like organ are surrounded by structures that appear to be sensitive to stimuli like pain, the researchers said.

“Our study shows sensitivity to pain does not occur only in the skin’s nerve fibers, but also in this recently discovered pain-sensitive organ,” lead author Dr. Patrik Ernfors told the Daily Mail. “The discovery changes our understanding of the cellular mechanisms of physical sensation and it may be of significance in the understanding of chronic pain.”

Pain can be a good thing. Physical pain is protective – it teaches people to avoid danger, and prevents them from causing more damage to an injured body part by overusing it. In short, pain helps organisms survive.

But chronic pain is different. It can cause long-term suffering, and prevent people from enjoying hobbies or being able to work. 

The mesh-like organ made up of glial cells was originally believed to protect the network of nerves that lace through the skin. The Karolinska Institute team used fluorescent tagging to see how all of the cells related to pain interacted with each other, and that’s when they discovered the nociceptive glio-neural complex was activated by pain stimuli. 

Blocking the network made mice less able to feel mechanical pain such as that caused by abnormal stress to the spine. 

The study has been published in the journal Science

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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