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Monday 24 March 2014

The Secrets of Ageing

Ageing by r000pert (Creative Commons)
Stormy weather ahead? Image credit: r000pert
At the moment at least, ageing is an inevitable part of life. And yet scientists don’t really understand how, or why, we age. It is thought that a combination of pre-programmed bodily changes and environmental issues are responsible[1], but how these interact isn’t clear. Some researchers in this area aim to help us make better lifestyle choices[2], such as eating more healthily or exercising more, in order to live a long and healthy life. Others meanwhile are looking for a way to stop the ageing process in its tracks[3].

Perhaps the first question that needs answering before we can fully understand the ageing process is whether it’s something coded into our genes, or simply a case of our bodies ‘wearing out’. From an evolutionary point of view, once an animal has passed reproductive age it’s of little use, and may not be worth the food needed to keep it alive. This means it makes sense for animals to die as soon as they are no longer fertile. There have been some suggestions that human women live so long post-menopause because they were useful in helping to look after their grandchildren[4], so their offspring were more successful. However it isn’t clear that this benefit would run to humans living as long as we do now. Another possibility is that rather than being an evolutionary advantage, ageing is purely a result of damage accumulating in our bodies - meaning that if we could prevent that damage, we may be able to extend our lifespans indefinitely.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Nociception: Things We Don't Know about Pain

Photograph of German museum with signs related to descriptions of pain
People with congenital insensitivity to pain can feel temperature, but not when it's bad. But those with congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis can't feel temperature at all, and so are at risk of overheating as well as getting cuts, bruises, burns etc. Image credit: Hobbes vs Boyle

Pain evolved as a necessary evil. It tells us when we've done something damaging, or are on the brink of causing more serious harm. It's tempting to wish away pain after stubbing your toe or burning your hand, but life without pain is far from pleasant. People born with very rare genetic conditions giving complete insensitivity to pain end up spending most of their lives in hospital for injuries they simply didn't know they were getting. They must actively learn and constantly be thinking about what things are "bad" to touch, such as knives or boiling water, because they will never feel the warning signs of a light prick or rising warmth.

These people have no trouble experiencing the touch and feel of their surroundings, showing that pain isn't just an excess of touch. Instead, there are nerves which specialise only in detecting and transmitting harmful stimuli. These nerves are called nociceptors.

Photograph of man holding a sign reading "No Pain"
After the first stage of the transmission of pain signals, our knowledge comes to an end. Image credit: Carlos Martinez
The first step of nociception, how receptors in our skin respond to painful stimuli, is probably the best understood aspect of pain - both mechanical and temperature-based. We know which of the heat-detecting nociceptors[1] can also be activated by capsaicin, the painful component of chillies that makes us feel like our mouth is on fire despite all evidence to the contrary. We also know which gene is mutated in many people who cannot feel pain.

Yet after the first stage, our understanding wanes considerably.