Can't stand the pain? Your genes may be to blame

ANN ARBOR, MI -- A tiny variation in a single gene may help explain why some people can withstand pain -- or other physical or emotional stress -- better than others, researchers from the University of Michigan and the National Institutes of Health report.

And while genetics may not make all the difference between wimps and Marines, the discovery adds to building evidence that variations in individuals' response to pain are mainly due to biological factors affecting the brain and how it processes environmental stressors, including its natural pain-control systems.

In the February 21 issue of the journal Science, the team will report that a small variation in the gene that encodes the enzyme called catechol-O-methyl transferase, or COMT, made a significant difference in the pain tolerance, and pain-related emotions and feelings, of healthy volunteers.

By combining genetic testing with molecular brain imaging techniques and controlled, sustained jaw pain, the researchers were able to see how well the participants' brains controlled the pain, and how they felt as a result, depending on what forms of COMT they carried.

The COMT enzyme helps govern aspects of brain chemistry involving the neurotransmitter chemicals dopamine and noradrenaline. The gene that encodes it occurs commonly in two forms, or alleles, which make copies of the enzyme that are different only by one amino acid, either valine or methionine.

The form of the enzyme containing methionine is much less active in the brain than the one containing valine. Everyone carries two copies of the COMT gene, one inherited from each parent.

The study showed that people with two copies of the "met" form of the COMT gene had a much more pronounced response to pain than those who carried two copies of the "val" form of the gene. Those with one copy of each form of COMT had a pain tolerance somewhere between the responses of the other two groups.


Contact: Kara Gavin
University of Michigan Health System

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