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Stanford scientists use light to control pain in mice


February 20, 2014

Researchers have shown that that exposure to one color of light can increase pain sensitivity in genetically modified mice, whilst another reduces it (Image: Shutterstock)

Researchers have shown that that exposure to one color of light can increase pain sensitivity in genetically modified mice, whilst another reduces it (Image: Shutterstock)

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Scientists at Stanford Bio-X, the institution's department for breakthrough discoveries about the human body and disease, have modified mice with gene therapy so that their sensitivity to pain can be altered by shining light on their paws.

This application of the neuromodulation technique called optogenetics starts with the insertion of light-sensitive proteins called opsins into the nerves of the mice. The researchers then showed that that exposure to one color of light can increase pain sensitivity in the mice whilst another reduces it.

The research is helping to develop a better understanding of what pain is and why it occurs. It is also hoped that it will provide some clues as to why some people feel pain more or less than others and the extent to which light might ultimately be able to treat pain in humans, in particularly those living with chronic and debilitating pain conditions.

The mice were modified by injecting a virus directly into their nerves that had been engineered to contain opsin-producing DNA. After a few weeks it was found that only the nerves that control pain had taken on the opsin proteins. As a result, the nerves were either more or less likely to fire depending on the color of light to which they were exposed.

"This powerful approach shows great potential for helping the millions who suffer pain from nerve damage," said Linda Porter, the pain policy adviser at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and a leader of the NIH's Pain Consortium. "Now, with a flick of a switch, scientists may be able to rapidly test new pain relieving medications and, one day, doctors may be able to use light to relieve pain."

Different opsins are now being produced that will react differently to different colors of light and the use of viruses to deliver the opsins means that they can be tested very quickly.

"Because we used a viral approach we could, in the future, quickly turn around and use newer opsins," says study leader Kate Montgomery in a press release.

Optogenetics was developed as a means of activating precise regions of the brain to better understand its functions. During a previous piece of research in which optogenetics was being used to control nerves that excite muscles, it was found that the opsins would on occasion be accidentally placed into the nerves that signal pain. It was this occurrence that triggered the research into the control of pain sensitivity.

Source: Stanford University

About the Author
Stu Robarts Stu is a tech writer based in Liverpool, UK. He has previously worked on global digital estate management at Amaze and headed up digital strategy for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology). He likes cups of tea, bacon sandwiches and RSS feeds. All articles by Stu Robarts

Nice. One step closer to super soldiers that don't feel pain or emotion.


@ Nairda People that do not feel pain die an early death because pain is the warning system that something is wrong. Not feeling emotions make for louse soldiers because it is love that motivates good soldiers and empathy that keeps them from committing the crimes that are the surest way to lose a war. This is why the anti-western civilization press makes sure that the crimes committed by the western militarizes receive headlines for as long as possible and the many more crimes by our enemies are hushed up or explained away.


I wonder is any of the scientists at Stanford Bio-X ever gave a moment's thought to the fact that maybe they have no moral or ethical right to submit any animal to pain, whether physically invasive or not...?


To be honest I don't understand why an online magazine leader in technology as GizMag publish such atrocities... Wake Up! Times are changing! Gizmag is a leader in innovation and so why don't look, for example, to places like John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and its Center for alternative to animal testing? Behind "classic" animal experimentation there are billions of taxpayer dollars thrown out the window, few results applicable to humans and too long to get to mass production of new drugs. Now technology allows us to do research better without torturing animals. This is not science fiction: it's happening right now in hundreds of laboratories around the world!!! Just make your work of journalist! Please go in these places and tell us what are they discovering without abusing poor animals!

Max Andreozzi
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