British researchers of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch have found out why the African naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber), one of the world's most unusual mammals, feels no pain when exposed to acid. African naked mole-rats live densely packed in narrow dark burrows where ambient carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are very high. In body tissues, CO2 is converted into acid, which continuously activates pain sensors. However, naked mole-rats are an exception: they have an altered ion channel in their pain receptors that is inactivated by acid and makes the animals insensitive to this type of pain. Dr. Ewan St. John Smith and Professor Gary Lewin conclude that this pain insensitivity is due to the African mole-rats' adaptation to their extreme habitat over the course of evolution. The results are published in the December 16, 2011 issue of Science. The Nav1.7 sodium ion channel plays a key role in the transmission of painful stimuli to the brain. It triggers a nerve impulse (action potential) in the pain receptors – sensory nerve cells, the endings of which are found in the skin and which transmit pain signals to the brain. Dentists already use sodium ion channel blockers in the form of local anesthetics, but these target all sodium ion channels they come into contact with, not just the Nav1.7 ion channel. People with defective Nav1.7 ion channels due to a genetic mutation feel no pain, but for them, pain insensitivity is not at all an advantage; minor injuries or infections can go unnoticed, often with serious consequences. However, this is different for the African naked mole-rat. For these animals, pain insensitivity to acid is evidently a survival advantage.
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