New Findings on How the Brain’s Own Marijuana-Like Chemicals Suppress Pain

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Dr David Finn, Co-Director of the Centre for Pain Research at NUI Galway
Dr David Finn, Co-Director of the Centre for Pain Research at NUI Galway

New findings about how the brain functions to suppress pain have been published in the leading journal Pain, by NUI Galway researchers. For the first time, it has been shown that the hippocampus of the brain, which is usually associated with memory, has an active role to play in suppressing pain during times of stress. The work was carried out by researchers in Pharmacology and Therapeutics, and the Centre for Pain Research at the National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science, NUI Galway.

In times of immense stress or fear, pain transmission and perception can be suppressed potently in humans and other animals. This important survival response can help us cope with, or escape from, potentially life-threatening situations. An increased understanding of the biological mechanisms involved in this so-called fear-induced analgesia is important from a fundamental physiological perspective and may also advance the search for new therapeutic approaches to the treatment of pain. 

Dr David Finn, Co-Director of the Centre for Pain Research at NUI Galway, and study leader, says: “The body can suppress pain when under extreme stress, in part through the action of marijuana-like substances produced in the brain. What we have now identified for the first time, is that the brain’s hippocampus is an important site of action of these endocannabinoids during the potent suppression of pain by fear.  This research, which was funded by a grant from Science Foundation Ireland, advances our fundamental understanding of the neurobiology of pain and may facilitate the identification of new therapeutic targets for the treatment of pain and anxiety disorders.”

Working with Dr Finn, first author Dr Gemma Ford was able to demonstrate that inhibition of the enzyme that breaks down one of these endogenous marijuana-like substances in the hippocampus, had the effect of enhancing stress-induced pain suppression. Further experimentation revealed that these effects were mediated by the cannabinoid CB1 receptor and were likely to be mediated by stress-induced increases in levels of endocannabinoids in the hippocampus.

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Author: Marketing and Communications Office, NUI Galway
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