Scientists Discover New Pain-Detecting Organ Just under Our Skin

Researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have discovered a new organ that may only be skin deep.

Scientists Discover New Pain-Detecting Organ Just under Our Skin
Skin cells under a microscope dra_schwartz/iStock

You've most likely quickly pulled your hand away when you've pricked it on a thorn bush, or if you fingertips get too close to fire. This is a natural reaction and generally means that your nervous system is working well. 

The exact understanding of the circuitry behind this bodily function is not fully understood. However, now scientists may have discovered a new part of the puzzle: a sensory organ lying just beneath our skin. 

Discovered by researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, the study was published in the journal Science.

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What are the details of this new-found pain organ?

The structure is called the nociceptive glio-neural complex, and it's a little different to other regular organs, like our heart or our liver. 

This structure comprises a network of cells called the glial cells. The glial cells are already known to surround nerves and support our nervous system.

However, here, the glial cells create a structure similar to a mesh between our skin's inner and outer layers. From this mesh, small filament-esque protrusions push out into our skin's outer layer. 

What the researchers found is that this organ plays a big part in our ability to detect pain naturally through our skin. Anything from pricking or pressure, this organ helps detect these painful instances. 

Previously, it was believed that only nociceptive fibers played this part. 

"We have been thinking for probably a hundred years that pain is started from nerves in the skin," said Patrik Ernfors, the study's co-author and molecular neurobiologist at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. 

Scientists Discover New Pain-Detecting Organ Just under Our Skin
Patrik Ernfors and his research team at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. Source: Gunnar Ask/Karolinska Institutet

Ernfors continued, "But what we show now is that pain can also be started in these glial cells."

Scientists Discover New Pain-Detecting Organ Just under Our Skin
Patrik Ernfors and team in a research lab. Source: Gunnar Ask/Karolinska Institutet

How will this discovery help humans medically-speaking?

Currently, the discovery has only been found in mice. It has yet to be looked at and discovered in humans.

But, as Ernfors said "Considering that all other previously known sensory organs in [mice] also exist in humans, it is possible if not likely that this sensory organ also is present in our skin," so the chances are quite high. 

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If this is the case, then this study may help with treatments for neuropathic pain disorders, which affect around 10% of Americans, and between 7% to 10% of Europeans.

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