People who carry three gene variants that have been inherited from Neanderthals are more sensitive to some types of pain, according to a new study co-led by University College London (UCL) researchers. The findings, published on October 10, 2023 in Communications Biology, are the latest to show how past interbreeding with Neanderthals has influenced the genetics of modern humans. The open-access article is titled “Neanderthal Introgression in SCN9A Impacts Mechanical Pain Sensitivity.” The researchers found that people carrying three so-called Neanderthal variants in the gene SCN9A, which is implicated in sensory neurons, are more sensitive to pain from skin pricking after prior exposure to mustard oil. [The application of mustard oil results in rapid activation of nociceptors (pain receptors)]. Previous research has identified three variations in the SCN9A gene--known as M932L, V991L, and D1908G--in sequenced Neanderthal genomes and reports of greater pain sensitivity among humans carrying all three variants. However, prior to this study the specific sensory responses affected by these variants was unclear.
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