A recent study published in Communications Biology has uncovered a fascinating link between our Neanderthal ancestry and our perception of pain. This research delves into the enduring influence of Neanderthal genes on modern humans, shedding light on how these ancient genes affect our experience of different types of pain.
The study reveals that present-day individuals who are descendants of Neanderthals carry three specific gene variants that make them more sensitive to mechanical pain. This heightened sensitivity primarily applies to pain experienced in areas like the spinal joints, discs, vertebrae, and soft tissues. However, it’s important to note that this increased sensitivity does not extend to other types of pain, such as heat-related or pressure-related discomfort. In essence, Neanderthal genes seem to selectively impact our perception of certain pain sensations.
This investigation builds upon previous research from 2020, where scientists first established a connection between these Neanderthal gene variants and heightened pain sensitivity. Notably, this heightened sensitivity is more pronounced in individuals with European ancestry. The key genes under scrutiny are associated with a sodium channel called Nav1.7, found in nociceptors, which are specialized nerve cells responsible for transmitting pain signals to the brain.
The 2020 study identified three crucial gene variants – M932L, V991L, and D1908G – linked to increased pain sensitivity, but these variants were relatively rare, found in just 0.4% of the UK population. In this latest study, researchers aimed to broaden the scope and overcome the limitations of previous research by examining a more diverse population.
“We extend these findings by studying Latin Americans and showing that these Neanderthal genetic variants are much more common in people with Native American ancestry,” Faux said. “We also show the type of pain these variants affect, which wasn’t known before.”
To achieve this, the research team studied 5,971 individuals from a range of geographic regions, including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. These individuals represented a mix of ancestries, incorporating Native American, European, and African heritage into their genetic backgrounds. The findings revealed that the three Neanderthal gene variants were most prevalent in the Peruvian population, making them more sensitive to mechanical pain, particularly in the spine.
“The high frequency of the Neanderthal variants in people with Native American ancestry could potentially be explained by a scenario where the Neanderthals carrying these variants happened to breed with the modern humans who eventually migrated into the Americas,” Faux said.
In contrast, the Brazilian population exhibited the lowest occurrence of these gene variants, implying reduced sensitivity to this type of pain.
“Why Neanderthals might have had a greater pain sensitivity and whether introgression in SCN9A represented an advantage during human evolution remains to be determined,” noted the researchers in their concluding argument.