This scottish woman has never felt pain or experienced significant anxiety or fear, and now we know why

Jo Cameron was discovered in 2019 to never have experienced pain or significant anxiety or fear, and now researchers have uncovered the biology behind her remarkable life.
John Loeffler
A feminine arm be pinched
A feminine arm be pinched

Nanyang Technological University 

It sounds like a fairy tale life, but for Jo Cameron, living pain free and without serious anxiety or fear — ever — is just another day in her remarkable life, and now researchers think they've isolated the "junk" gene that lets her live the most enviable of human experiences.

Cameron, who lives in Scotland, was discovered very late in life to have never experienced pain or even serious anxiety or fear in all her years. At age 65, Cameron went to see a doctor to see about an issue she was having with her hip, whereupon doctors found severe joint degeneration which should have put her in debilitating pain.

Cameron reported feeling no pain at all, and a year later, she had major surgery on her hand which, as one of the most nerve-dense parts of our body, typically comes with significant post-surgical pain. Cameron, again, reported feeling no pain in her hand and cannot recall a time she had ever needed to take any form of painkillers.

In 2019, researchers identified a gene, FAAH-OUT, that seemed to be the cause of her extraordinary condition, and a newly published study in the journal Brain details the molecular mechanism behind Cameron's extraordinary pain insensitivity. According to University College London (UCL) researchers, mutations in FAAH-OUT and the FAAH genes are responsible for producing Cameron's pain insensitivity, and the FAAH-OUT gene appears to "turn down" expression of the gene FAAH, which has ancillary effects for other molecular mechanisms tied to wound healing and mood.

"The FAAH-OUT gene is just one small corner of a vast continent, which this study has begun to map," Dr. Andrei Okorokov (UCL Medicine), a senior author of the study, said in a university statement. "As well as the molecular basis for painlessness, these explorations have identified molecular pathways affecting wound healing and mood, all influenced by the FAAH-OUT mutation. As scientists, it is our duty to explore and I think these findings will have important implications for areas of research such as wound healing, depression, and more."

The identification of the gene mechanism is just the start, according to the researchers, who mapped the impact of the mutation in the FAAH-OUT gene, and while it turned down expression of FAAH, it also turned down 348 other genes while turning up another 797. Needless to say, there is far more work to be done to see how these gene mutations and expressions interact before any possible benefit for people can be drawn from the discovery.

“The initial discovery of the genetic root of Jo Cameron’s unique phenotype was a eureka moment and hugely exciting, but these current findings are where things really start to get interesting," Professor James Cox (UCL Medicine), a senior author of the study, said. "By understanding precisely what is happening at a molecular level, we can start to understand the biology involved and that opens up possibilities for drug discovery that could one day have far-reaching positive impacts for patients.”

Probably the most remarkable thing about FAAH-OUT and FAAH is that they are found in the 98% of human DNA that is noncoding, often referred to as 'junk' DNA. This is because these genes had long been thought to "not do anything" because they didn't specifically code for a protein to be used in cells, but as Cameron's case reveals, there is clearly far more to this "dark" part of our genome.

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