AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 26, Number 1, 2017

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Itch Neurons Play a Role in Managing Pain

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There are neurons in your skin that are wired for one purpose and one purpose only: to sense itchy things. These neurons are separate from the ones that detect pain, and yet, chemical-induced itch is often accompanied by mild pain, such as burning and stinging sensations. But when it comes to sending signals toward your brain through your spinal cord, itch and mild pain can go through the same set of spinal cord neurons. This finding explains why pain often accompanies intense, chemical-induced itch. “To our surprise, we found the spinal cord neurons receiving the peripheral pain and itch inputs are not separate. They can receive signals from itch fibers and also pain fibers,” says Xinzhong Dong, PhD, professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, who led the study. These neurons, called the GRP neurons, are a way station for pain and itch signals on their way to the brain.

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