Scientists make pain-control discovery
Breakthrough could lead to drugs to help fight depression and addiction as well as discomfort
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent and i. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; four times highly commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigations into the tobacco industry. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Thursday 22 March 2012
New drugs for treating a range of illnesses from depression to chronic pain could result from studies that reveal for the first time the detailed molecular structure of the brain's "pleasure molecules", scientists said.
Researchers have deciphered the atomic three-dimensional structure of the brain's opioid receptors, the protein molecules that are intimately involved in the control of pain and feelings of wellbeing, as well as being the target of the opioid drugs such as morphine, codeine and heroin.
They said that unravelling of the structure of the opioid receptors on such a minutely detailed level will accelerate the development of new drugs that can alleviate anxiety and depression as well as novel treatments for chronic pain and addiction.
"Once we see the structure of the receptor, it becomes easier for us to develop drugs that target the receptor in ways that might be beneficial for medical therapy," said Professor Bryan Roth of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.
There are four types of opioid receptor which work together in ways that are not completely understood. Two of them have been deciphered by two teams of researchers who published their work in the journal Nature.
Professor Roth's group worked on the "kappa" opioid receptor which is known to respond to one of the most powerful natural hallucinogenic drugs, salvinorin A, which is derived from the plant Salvia divinorum, commonly known as "magic mint".
According to the US National Institute on Drug Abuse there has been a surge in the use of salvia among young Americans, with more than one in 20 young adults saying they have experimented with magic mint in the past year.
The second opioid receptor analysed in detail is the "mu" opioid which is involved in the control of pleasure and pain-relief by binding to the body's endorphin neurotransmitters. The same receptor is targeted by synthetic opioid drugs such as morphine, codeine and heroin – as well as opium.
While the kappa opioid receptor appears to elevate a person's mood, the mu receptor can depress mood and produce "dissociative psychedelic experiences", which is how magic mint produces its effect, the scientists said.
Studies on laboratory animals have indicated the drugs that can block the action of the kappa opioid receptors could be used to treat addiction, provide pain-relief and reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, he said.
Even the psychedelic effect associated with the activation of the kappa receptor protein could be useful in providing fresh insights into human perception and consciousness, Professor Roth said.
Update: Spelling of opioid corrected.
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 3 US? China? India? The 10 biggest economies in 2030 will be...
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
General Election 2015: David Cameron catching up in polls – but he badly needs a clear lead
Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
South Africa xenophobic attacks: Shops looted and violence on streets of Johannesburg as foreigners are forced to hide in police stations
18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...
£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...
£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...
£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...