Scientists Identify New Pain Organ In the Skin

Scientists announced, this week, the discovery of a new organ in the skin that is capable of sensing pain.  While such a discovery is certainly novel in its own right, analyst theorize this could lead to new developments in effective painkilling medicaiton. 

Effectively, these pain-sensing cells form what scientists describe as a “mesh-like network” that is so complex and extensive that we should consider it to be an organ instead of just an amalgam of tissues.  Previous research suggested that nerve cell endings are not wrapped in protective casing, but this new research appears to contradict this. 

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

Researchers note this new sensory organ consists of Schwann cells with several long protrusions that do, in fact, wrap themselves around the nerve cells. This helps to keep them alive and active. The Schwann cell network sits just below the epidermal layer of skin (the outermost layer) with long, tentacle-like protrusions extending towards the outer layer.  Most importantly, not only do these cells wrap around nerve endings but they also have the ability to process pain, much like nerve cells; and they are even quite sensitive to various stimuli. 

Identifying this, researchers genetically modified mice so their Schwann cells could be stimulated by light particles.  Shining light onto their feet, the mice licked and shook them, which indicates that the light exposure resulted in pain (or, at least, enough discomfort to incite a physical response).  

This response is important, of course, because pain is a survival mechanism that helps organisms to protect themselves.  Specifically, the research could help the roughly 20 percent of people who experience constant pain through the development of new painkilling drugs. 

Ernfors goes on to say, “We have not studied humans yet. However, considering that all previously known sensory organs found in mouse also exist in humans; it is possible if not likely that it does exist also in the human skin.”