For some people, itching is an infrequent annoyance. For others, with a skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis, itching is a part of life. For everyone, new and effective treatments may soon be on the horizon. That’s because U.S. researchers have just discovered a gene involved in the nervous system’s itch sensation.
They found a receptor in only a handful of nerve cells in the spine. This is the “itch gene,” which is directly linked to pain and itch signals that run from skin to brain, and vice versa. Then, in a lab setting, they confirmed this finding with mice. Mice that didn’t have this gene scratched themselves less often than mice with the gene.
We may now know the genetic basis for the ultrapowerful urge to itch. And that could set the stage for powerful treatments to combat chronic itching. Millions suffer this, either from a condition, perpetually dry skin, kidney or liver problems, or medication side effects. Needless to say, chronic itching impacts quality of life, disrupts sleep, and constant scratching can actually scar the skin.
There are no good itching cures at the moment beyond creams. The reason is that it wasn’t given the attention that its cousin, pain, received. Pain and itching travel along the same nerve pathway, and the latter has long sat in the shadow of the former.
But here, all of a sudden, the gene that distinguishes the itching response has been uncovered. Mice with the gene scratched vigorously when exposed to itchy substances. Mice without the gene still scratched, but much less. The fact that they did scratch means there are more itch receptors out there. But now that they know the makeup of the itch gene, they’ll likely be able to find the others.
This could lead to drugs or creams that suppress your urge to itch but leave your pain sensations alone. That’s important, because pain is the body’s warning sign that something is wrong. Without it, a serious problem could lurk undetected for dangerously long periods of time.
Most importantly, it brings hope to people with eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis, and other skin ailments that are persistent and life-altering.