24 July 2020

Another Neanderthal legacy

Scientists have found that Neanderthals felt pain more strongly

RIA News

Geneticists have found out that one of the genes that modern humans inherited from Neanderthals encodes the ion channel responsible for the sensation of pain. Hence, scientists conclude that Neanderthals had a lower pain threshold than other human species. The results of the study are published in the journal Current Biology (Zeberg et al., A Neanderthal Sodium Channel Increases Pain Sensitivity in Present-Day Humans).

Neanderthals and modern humans have mixed and exchanged genes several times over the millennia.

Currently, several high-quality genomes of Neanderthals are available, and biologists are actively studying them, identifying genetic features and changes in individual genes of Neanderthals, their consequences and physiological effects that can manifest themselves, including in modern humans.

German scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, together with their colleagues from the Karolinska Institute, Sweden's largest medical university, examined one of these inherited genes that carries changes.

This gene, found in some people, mainly from Central and South America, as well as from Europe, encodes the sodium ion channel Nav1.7, which initiates the sensation of pain.

The authors studied the results of a huge population genetic study in the UK. It turned out that Britons who carry the "Neanderthal" version of the ion channel – these make up about 0.4 percent of the population – really experience more pain.

"The most important factor determining the amount of pain people report is their age. The presence of a "Neanderthal" version of the ion channel causes them to experience pain as if they were eight years older," the press release says. The Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, the words of Dr. Hugo Zeberg, the first author of the article. "Compared to the modern version, the 'Neanderthal' version of the ion channel carries three amino acid differences."

Although the replacement of individual amino acids, as the researchers note, does not affect the function of the ion channel, at the molecular level, the "Neanderthal" ion channel has special electrophysiological properties – it is easier to activate, so people who inherited it feel pain more strongly.

"It's hard to say whether Neanderthals experienced more pain, because pain is modulated in the spinal cord and brain. But this work shows that their threshold for initiating pain impulses was lower than that of most modern people," says the head of the study, Professor Svante Piaebo.

Scientists hope that further genetic studies of the functions of the peripheral nervous system of Neanderthals will answer this question.

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