To understand how capsaicin can help treat pain, it is important to understand our body’s reaction to chillies.
According to Professor Peter McIntyre, Deputy Director of the HiRi, chilli peppers taste hot and give a burning sensation because of the chemical capsaicin.
When consumed, capsaicin binds to and opens ion channels on the surface of our pain-sensing nerves.
These ion channels on pain-sensing nerves are called TRPV1. Once capsaicin binds to the ion channels, an electrical signal will start and move along the nerve causing painful stimuli, similar to when we touch a hot object.
Understanding how to stop the ion channels from opening will help researchers in designing new pain-killing drugs.
Capsaicin itself may also be used as an effective remedy for pain.
“Capsaicin hurts when you rub it into sensitive areas where it has access to the nerves,” Professor McIntyre said.
“After the initial pain, the capsaicin causes the nerves that have been activated to tire, so they stop firing electrical signals to the brain, thereby stopping the pain.”
Professor McIntyre’s research complements work done by HiRi Director, Professor David Adams, who looks at the cocktail of agents in cone snail venom that paralyses prey.
His team focuses on isolating peptides in the venom that target particular receptors in pain pathways in a bid to find new treatments for chronic and naturopathic pain.
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