16 August 2005

Bullimia nervosa and the opioid system

Ok, so its not strictly about pain, but there are many important connections between disorders like bulimia and self-injurious behaviour (SIB), and pain.
RESTON, Va.— The role of the brain’s opioid receptor system—or endorphin system—may hold the key to understanding and treating bulimia nervosa, according to research reported in the Society of Nuclear Medicine’s August issue of the Journal of Nuclear Medicine.

"Involvement of the opioid system may explain the addictive quality of this behavioral disorder," said Angela Guarda, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md. The first imaging study to implicate the opioid system in bulimia nervosa shows differences in women with bulimia compared to healthy women, added J. James Frost, M.D., Ph.D., professor of radiology and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins and co-author of "Regional ?-Opioid Receptor Binding in Insular Cortex Is Decreased in Bulimia Nervosa and Correlates Inversely With Fasting Behavior." In the study, eight women with bulimia were compared to healthy women of the same age and weight. Their brains were scanned using positron emission tomography (PET) after injection with the short-acting radioactive compound carfentanil, which binds to mu-opioid receptors in the brain, explained Frost. PET is a powerful medical imaging procedure that noninvasively uses special imaging systems and radioactive tracers to produce pictures of the function and metabolism of the cells in the body. He noted, "We found that mu-opioid receptor binding in bulimic women was lower than in healthy women in the left insular cortex. The insula is involved in processing taste, as well as the anticipation and reward of eating, and has been implicated in studies of other driven behavioral disorders, including drug addiction and gambling.”

Bulimia nervosa is a serious eating disorder marked by a destructive pattern of recurrent dieting, binging and vomiting to control one's weight. "Patients feel trapped by this behavioral cycle suggesting something about it is rewarding,” said Guarda, “and, as with substance abuse, the course of bulimia is frequently chronic and relapsing."

Bulimia nervosa, which is 10 times more common in females than in males, affects 1–2 percent of adolescent girls and young women in the United States. Bulimia may become chronic and lead to serious health problems, including seizures, irregular heartbeat, dental erosion, swollen salivary glands, gastrointestinal irritation and electrolyte imbalances. In rare cases, it may be fatal. While the cause of bulimia nervosa is still unknown, research shows that certain brain chemicals may function abnormally in bulimia patients. This research may point to a molecular target for development of more effective treatments than those currently available. Frost indicated that medications that affect the brain’s opioid receptor system and approaches to treatment for substance abuse disorders may be helpful in treating bulimia.


Gender and pain in the Economist

From the Economist.
Men and women seem to perceive pain in different ways. That may mean they sometimes need different pain-relief drugs

MALES and females respond to pain differently, even as children. In most places, boys are expected to show a stiff upper lip when they get hurt, while in girls wailing is, well, girlie. In part, this difference is learnt—or, at least, reinforced by learning. But partly, it is innate. It is hard, for instance, to blame upbringing for the finding that boy and girl babies show different responses to pain six hours after birth, or that male rats are more long-suffering than females. It is also life-long. Ed Keogh of the University of Bath, in England, and his colleagues have found that women report feeling pain in more bodily areas than men, and also feel it more often over the course of their lives.

Many researchers are therefore concluding that genetics underpins at least some of the difference, and that females really do feel pain more than males. Indeed, some go further. They think that the way men and women experience pain is not only quantitatively different, but qualitatively different, too. In other words, men's and women's brains process pain using different circuits. Some pain scientists therefore think it is only a matter of time before painkillers are formulated differently for men and women in order to account for this difference.

Jeffrey Mogil, director of the pain genetics laboratory at McGill University in Montreal, is one of the leading advocates of such “pink and blue” painkillers. Pick a disease at random, he says, and the chances are that females and males will handle the pain associated with it differently. That seems to be true in mice, at least. When new mouse “models” of human disease are created by genetic engineers, Dr Mogil and his colleagues are often asked to test the engineered mice for their responses to pain. They consistently find differences in the way the mutant, diseased mice and their non-mutation-carrying brethren respond to painful stimuli. But, generally, those differences are seen more strongly in one sex than the other.

A prescribing headache

The latest example of such a difference is in migraine, a condition that is three times more common in women than in men. In 2004, a group of researchers led by Michel Ferrari of Leiden University in the Netherlands reported that they had created what they believed to be the first mouse model of migraine. Since some researchers argue that migraine is associated with heightened sensitivity to pain, they sent their creation to Dr Mogil for testing. He stresses that his data are preliminary. However, he does find a lowered pain threshold in the mouse migraine model compared with healthy mice—but only in females.

Dr Mogil is now convinced that the pain response in men and women is mediated by different brain circuits—and not only because of his own observations. Obstetricians and gynaecologists have long known that certain drugs are particularly effective in women. Mothers in childbirth prefer nalbuphine to morphine, for instance. Men, however, report the opposite preference when they are in pain.

Both nalbuphine and morphine work by stimulating the brain's endogenous-opioid receptors (endogenous opioids are the molecules that opium-derived drugs mimic). But opioid receptors come in several varieties, two of the most important of which are known as mu and kappa. Morphine binds to the mu receptors, while nalbuphine stimulates the less well-studied kappa receptors. Kappa-receptor agonists, as molecules such as nalbuphine are known, appear to have little or no pain-relieving effect in men.

Two years ago, Dr Mogil identified the first gene known to be involved in modulating pain thresholds in women. Variations in this gene have no effect on men's responses to a kappa-receptor agonist called pentazocine, but they do affect the response in women. The protein produced by this gene, melanocortin-1 receptor, also affects hair and skin colour. Working in collaboration with Roger Fillingim of the University of Florida, Gainesville, Dr Mogil found that redheaded women with fair skin—who have a particular version of the receptor—have a heightened response to pentazocine.

Jon Levine and Robert Gear, of the National Institutes of Health Pain Centre at the University of California, San Francisco, also think that there are fundamental differences between the sexes when it comes to pain. They have explored the effects of nalbuphine on post-operative pain in men and women who have had their wisdom teeth removed. The results suggest that kappa-opioid agonists not only fail to alleviate pain in men, they can actually make it worse.

Dr Gear and Dr Levine believe that as well as an analgesia (ie, pain-suppression) circuit, the brain contains what they call an anti-analgesia circuit—one which, when activated, pumps pain up. They have shown that which circuit is activated depends not only on the type of receptor a drug acts on, but also the dose given. Among their dental patients, low doses of nalbuphine had a short-lasting analgesic effect in the women, but profoundly enhanced pain in the men. However, when they added a low dose of naloxone—a drug that blocks all types of opioid receptor—to the nalbuphine, the sex difference disappeared and pain relief was significantly enhanced in everyone. After refining the relative proportions of the two drugs in the mixture, they have succeeded in finding (and patenting) a combination that is effective in both sexes.

Nor is it only the mechanism of pain perception that differs between the sexes. Dr Keogh and his colleagues argue that there are significant differences in the ways men and women cope with pain, as well.

This conclusion is based on studies involving hospital patients, as well as others on volunteers who were exposed to a painful stimulus, such as an ice-water arm-bath. Using this, the researchers were able to measure the point at which people first notice pain, as well as their tolerance—the point at which they can no longer stand it. Men were able to minimise their experience of pain by concentrating on the sensory aspects—their actual physical sensations. But this strategy did not help women, who focused more on the emotional aspects. Since the emotions associated with pain, such as fear and anxiety, tend to be negative, the researchers suggest that the female approach may actually exacerbate pain rather than alleviating it.

Dr Keogh, a psychologist, sees this difference as an effect of social conditioning—and uses it to point up the dangers of under-estimating social influences in favour of those of the genes. But it is not obvious why such male and female “coping strategies” should not be underpinned by genetics, in the same way that perceptions are..

Yes another great example of a science writer tackling research on sex/gender and x. Here, the survey of the research is decent but clear. But then we get a final paragraph like this:
The evolutionary reason why men resist pain better than women is, however, a mystery. After all, pain is there to stop you doing bad things to yourself. Perhaps it is because males and females are exposed to different sorts of pain. Males, for instance, get into fights much more often than females do, and thus get wounded more often. On the other hand, they do not have to undergo the visceral pain of childbirth. And perhaps a willingness to tolerate less pain than men do helps to explain why women live longer than their menfolk


From Roxanne

10 August 2005


MONTREAL 27 July 2005--Scientists at the MUHC have made progress in understanding what causes migraines. The research, published in the new issue of the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), reveals how gene mutations known to cause a form of inherited migraine--the kind that cause debilitating headaches and light flashes known as auras--target a cellular process involved in brain cell communication.

"A number of mutations have been shown to result in familial migraines," says Dr. Rhoda Blostein--a medical scientist at the Research Institute of the MUHC, professor in the Department of Medicine and Biochemistry at McGill University, and author of the new study. "Discovering genetic mutations that cause disease is important, but in order to develop treatments we must understand what these mutations do." By engineering several genetic mutations known to cause inherited migraines (type 2), and incorporating them into human cells, Dr. Blostein and her team showed several genotypes damage the operation of a tiny cellular mechanism commonly known as the Sodium Pump (Sodium/Potassium ATPase enzyme).

"Much of what happens in your brain--from memory to basic movement--is the result of the transmission of electrical impulses along nerve cells," says Dr. Blostein. "This is a basic process by which our brain cells communicate." By expelling sodium from the cell, and drawing potassium from outside, the sodium pump maintains a gradient of potassium, which is critical for the propagation of electrical signals along nerve cells. Like an air conditioner in the heat of summer, the sodium pump is a massive energy hog, consuming around 30% of the energy produced by the cell in order to perform this vital cellular process.

Of particular interest in this study is that some mutations cause migraines by reducing sodium pump efficiency--akin to reducing the power supply. "This is the first time that a genetic mutation of the sodium pump has been shown to cause disease by changing the properties of this biochemical process, rather than completely turning it off," notes Dr. Blostein. This new understanding of how genetic mutations cause migraines takes us one step closer to the development of improved treatments, providing hope to millions of migraine sufferers.


05 August 2005

Know your opiates: Heroin vs. Morphine

What is the difference between heroin and ordinary medical morphine?

"Morphine" as it is commonly referred to, is morphine sulfate. Heroin is diacetyl morphine. That is, heroin is simply morphine with an acetyl molecule attached.

In terms of effects, they are exactly the same -- and medically interchangeable -- except for dosage. In fact, they are both converted to the same form of morphine when they get into the body.

The only significant difference between them is that the acetyl molecule allows heroin to cross the blood-brain barrier more quickly than ordinary morphine. The result is that, in terms of dosage, heroin is about three times stronger. That is, one grain of heroin equals about three grains of morphine. Otherwise, they are identical and there is no significant difference that would justify heroin being completely illegal (Schedule I) while morphine is used routinely in medicine. (Schedule II) They can be used interchangeably as long as medical personnel follow standard practices of medical care.

At this point a sensible person might ask why heroin is illegal while morphine is not. The answer is the same answer about the origins of almost any of our drug laws -- plain old legislative ignorance of the subject.