New pain organ discovered in the skin

August 15, 2019 , Karolinska Institutet
Patrik Ernfors, PhD, Professor at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden. Credit: Gunnar Ask

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have discovered a new sensory organ that is able to detect painful mechanical damage, such as pricks and impacts. The discovery is being published in the journal Science.

Pain causes suffering and results in substantial costs for society. Almost one person in every five experiences constant and there is a considerable need to find new painkilling drugs. However, sensitivity to pain is also required for survival and it has a protective function. It prompts reflex reactions that prevent damage to tissue, such as pulling your hand away when you feel a jab from a sharp object or when you burn yourself.

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet have now discovered a new sensory organ in the skin that is sensitive to hazardous environmental irritation. It is comprised of with multiple long protrusions and which collectively go to make up a mesh-like organ within the skin. This organ is sensitive to painful mechanical damage such as pricks and pressure.

The study describes what the new pain-sensitive organ looks like, how it is organized together with pain-sensitive nerves in the skin and how activation of the organ results in in the that result in reflex reactions and an experience of pain. The cells that make up the organ are highly sensitive to mechanical stimuli, which explain how they can participate in the detection of painful pinpricks and pressure. In experiments, the researchers also blocked the organ and saw a resultant decreased ability to feel mechanical pain.

"Our study shows that sensitivity to pain does not occur only in the skin's nerve fibers, 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," says Patrik Ernfors, professor at Karolinska Institutet's Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics and chief investigator for the study.

More information: "Specialized cutaneous Schwann cells initiate pain sensation" Science (2019). science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi … 1126/science.aax6452

Journal information: Science

Provided by Karolinska Institutet