If you love that kick you get from spicy foods, then you’re probably a fan of wasabi, mustard seed, and garlic. Some people can’t stand the pain that these foods cause while others relish in it. Whichever type of person you are, you can thank a single pain receptor for the effects of all these foods.
We’re just now learning how pain is sensed in the brain and a recent study is showing there may be several different types of pain that can be attributed to a single receptor. These three foods create uniquely different sensations on the tongue, but inside the body, all the messages these items send are going straight to the same place: the TRPA1 pain receptor.
Interestingly, this is not the same receptor that feels the spicy sensation from capsaicin. It turns out that pathway seems to be activated by heat.
The best thing about this discovery is that it can help scientists to figure out how to halt certain negative pain responses in the body, such as those from arthritis or other inflammatory conditions. They found that mice that had this TRPA1 receptor blocked in their brain could easily handle being touched with mustard oil.
Normally, the animals would try to lick the substance off or flick it off with their paws. This may also explain why certain people don’t respond to spicy foods very strongly while others can barely touch them.
The pain receptor also did double duty as a target for a pro- inflammatory substance. This is also an important discovery, as the inflammatory product causes pain and sensitivity to temperature and touch. TRPA1 also reacts to the by-products of some medications, such as those used in chemotherapy.
Right now, the doctors are looking at ways to possibly shut down the TRPA1 pain receptor during chemotherapy, so patients would experience fewer side effects and less pain. This could mean a better quality of life for cancer patients. As well, with further exploration into the nature of this receptor, scientists hope to find a way to block general pain and possibly even develop treatments for people with cough and asthma.