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To understand the origins of pain, ask a flatworm

Experiments in planarians identify a chemical middleman that triggers the body’s ouch detectors

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12:46pm, October 16, 2017
Schmidtea mediterranea

DANGER DETECTOR  In planarians (Schmidtea mediterranea shown), a protein called TRPA1 detects hydrogen peroxide, a molecule produced when cells are damaged. These new results give hints about the evolution of human pain.

Hydrogen peroxide, a molecule produced by cells under duress, may be a common danger signal, helping to alert animals to potential harm and send them scurrying. New details from planarian flatworms of how this process works may deepen scientists’ understanding of how people detect pain, and may ultimately point to better ways to curb it.

“Being able to get a big-picture view of how these systems are built and what they’re cuing in on is always really helpful,” says biologist Paul Garrity of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

And by finding cellular similarities among planarians, fruit flies and people, the new study, published online October 16 in Nature Neuroscience, provides hints about how this threat-detecting system might have operated hundreds of millions of years ago.

The results center on a protein called TRPA1, a well-known pain detector in people.

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