Well Being

Melanocortin-1 Gene for Red Hair and Pain Tolerance

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Progress in science often means that existing theories are proven wrong. Ideas are overturned, causing confusion about what we should do to stay healthy and live longer. At some point, it seems best just to live a life of moderation and keep your head down.

This month, scientists from the University of Edinburgh announced a mutation that disables the melanocortin-1 gene which, in women only, leads to red hair and a higher tolerance for pain. Normally, the melanocortin-1 gene produces a protein that reduces the efficacy of opiate drugs, but without a functional gene, natural and artificial painkillers appear to induce a three-fold stronger effect in redheaded women.

“It does appear that redheads have a significantly different pain threshold and require less anaesthetic to block out certain pains,” Professor Ian Jackson of the Medical Research Council's Human Genetics Unit, said.

I hate to contradict Professor Jackson (ok, maybe I like it), but three years ago, research suggested quite the opposite. Redheads were found to be more sensitive to pain and in need of more anesthesia during surgery.

Neither study is particularly convincing. The most recent study examined mice and the older study studied only ten redhaired women.

In any case, understanding the underlying pathophysiology of pain will eventually make it possible for each of us to have a personalized pain treatment program that will calibrate the most appropriate amounts of addictive painkillers and side-effect causing anesthesia. Now if we could only get the story straight.