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Duke researchers study shutting off pain in mice, with potential human applications

Pain is a complex process that is difficult to endure and even more difficult to understand. Duke researchers have made a discovery about mice that they hope could help treat it in humans. 

Fan Wang, professor of neurobiology at the School of Medicine, has found a small region of the brain in mice that can help turn off pain. The region is located in the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain that regulates behavior and emotional control, specifically negative emotions.

In a paper, Wang and a team of researchers showed that CeAga neurons, a subgroup of inhibitory neurons, are a powerful pain-off switch. While much previous research has focused on finding which brain regions turn on pain, this particular study’s focus on finding a region that could turn it off is quite unique.  

“It’s a brilliant idea to search for pain turn-off brain regions through the anesthesia process”, said Bin Chen, a postdoctoral researcher on Wang’s research study. 

The team hopes to ultimately translate their findings into clinical treatments for humans.

“If we want to translate this finding to the clinical treatment, we should first know the specifics of the CeAga neurons and what kind of molecular or RNA information in these CeAga neurons is most responsible for the analgesia,” Chen said.

Chen’s role in this research involved working on calcium imaging recording to see the activity patterns of CeAga neurons during the anesthesia process. Now, the team hopes to take that to an even more detailed level by working on RNA sequencing to find some molecular markers that are responsible for activating the CeAga neurons through anesthetics to produce pain-suppression effects.

Based on the results of this sequencing, some drugs can be developed and tested. The team also hopes to use some drug-delivery technologies to see how the potential drugs target the CeAga neurons.

Some ongoing aims of the study include studying how different anesthetics activate the same CeAga neurons. Additionally, the team is also interested in studying how microcircuit patterns, specific kinds of processing of a region, cooperate among the CeAga neurons. They would also like to determine what the function of CeAga neurons is in physiological status besides activation in anesthesia.

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