Scientists try to block pathways of pain

December 31, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

Scientists working on the phenomena of pain have begun to explore the possibility of placing more emphasis on suppressing pain before it reaches the receptors in the brain by blocking the path of the nerve impulses. A key reason scientists are so eager to stop pain signals before they reach the brain is that they understand so little of what happens inside the brain.

Dr. Kenneth L. Casey, professor of neurology and physiology at the University of Michigan, has been trying to use a PET Scan imaging technique to try to paint a picture of pain inside the human brain.

In John Liebeskind's pain research lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, seven young researchers are following up on a discovery made nearly 20 years ago when Dr. Liebeskind himself was a young assistant professor. He and another group of graduate students verified the existence of a natural pain inhibition system in the brain.

Now Dr. Liebeskind and his current students are trying to understand the neurochemistry of non-opiate pain inhibition systems, which may one day help scientists understand why some painkillers are addictive and others are not.

They also are studying the genetics of pain. To do so, they are working with separate strains of mice that have been bred either for extremely low or extremely high tolerance to pain. While they have yet to confirm or publish their findings, Dr. Liebeskind and his team believe that a single gene may be associated with pain tolerance. If true, that could have profound practical implications as scientists become more adept at using genetic engineering to treat medical disorders.

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