Protectors of our nervous system play a role in pain

PET and MRI brain scans

People with chronic pain (left) have higher levels of a protein linked with inflammation (orange and red) in their brains than people without chronic pain (right), suggesting that the cells that protect the brain may also cause pain.

Marco Loggia, Massachusetts General Hospital

The same cells that safeguard our central nervous system may also play a role in chronic pain. People with persistent lower back pain had more translocator protein, which is linked with inflammation, in their brains than their healthy counterparts, new PET and MRI images show. Translocator protein acts as a marker for how active nerve-protecting glial cells are.

Past studies in animals have shown that glial cells play a role in chronic pain, but evidence in humans has been hard to find. The results of the new study, published January 12 in Brain, may help researchers develop a more objective way to measure pain and better ways to treat it.

For more on pain, read SN‘s feature “Hurt Blocker.”

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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