Neuroscientists say light may be the painkiller of the future

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Neuroscientists say light may be the painkiller of the future

Neuroscientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found a way to activate the brain’s pain-relieving mechanism using nothing but light.

Although the research is in the very, very early stages, the scientists say that some day in the future, doctors might be able to treat pain with safe, non-addicting doses of light, instead of the dangerous and addictive opioids in such wide use today.

To understand how the light idea works, we first need to know that all those opioid pills and injections we call “painkillers” are in fact not painkillers at all. They simply flip some switches in our brains and body that activate the body’s own natural pain-relieving system.

The second thing, and really the only other thing we need to know, is this really big news:

According to the research, the body’s pain-relief switches can be flipped on using something other than opioids – in this case, simple light.

How opioids work

When we take opioids, they interact with special receptors in our brains and body called “opioid receptors.” In simple terms, this causes the receptors to initiate biochemical activity in specific chemical pathways, reducing our sensitivity to pain.

So painkilling ability is not contained in the opioid painkillers – our own bodies have that ability. Opioids are just the activators – they flip the switches that turn on the body’s own painkiller system.

We’ve  called these switches “opioid receptors” because opioids have been the only substances known that so quickly and thoroughly switch on the body’s built-in painkilling system.

The question has been: What if some other substance, a non-opioid with no side effects, could be found that will flip these switches – something that is neither dangerous nor habit-forming?

That’s what the researchers at Washington University were trying to find out. And they say they’ve found a very exciting possibility.

The search for alternatives to opioids

Searching  for some other non-opioid substance that might activate the opioid receptors could take, literally, forever. You might never find anything that works. Furthermore, no one is exactly sure how these receptors even work – not in complete detail, anyway. They’re complex, and in fact do a lot more than just regulate pain.

Instead, the scientists decided to try altering the receptors themselves. Perhaps they could make the receptors sensitive to some known substance – one they could select in advance. If it worked, perhaps it could lead to better pain-killing drugs – ones with fewer side effects.

They decided to test the theory using a light-sensing protein called rhodopsin, which senses light in the eye’s retina. If they could somehow combine rhodopsin with opioid receptors, maybe  the receptors would “switch on” with light instead of needing opioids.

In the lab, the scientists were able to merge light-sensing rhodopsin into key parts of opioid receptors, creating new receptors that respond to light in exactly the same way that standard opioid receptors respond to opioids.

They injected these altered receptors into the brains of lab mice, and the results were astonishing. When the researchers shone light on the receptors that contained rhodopsin, the same cellular pathways were seen to become activated. The mice reacted to light in the same way that normal mice – and people for that matter – react to opioids.

The researchers were able to vary the animals’ response depending on the amount and type of light. Different colors, longer and shorter exposures and pulsed or steady light all produced slightly different effects.

Will light or other substances just act the same as opioids?

Opioids can create tolerance, dependence and addiction. They can interrupt normal breathing and function of the central nervous system, called overdose. There are many other side effects.

Will receptors altered to respond to light act the same as the standard ones do with opioids?

The researchers wrote that, in theory at least, receptors tuned to light may not present the same dangers. In fact, they say that someday it may be possible to activate, or deactivate, painkilling nerve cells without affecting any of the other receptors that today’s opioid painkillers trigger – the ones that potentially lead to tolerance, dependence and overdose.

And if pain patients have to have altered light-sensitive receptors injected into their bodies, how will you ever turn them off when the painful condition is healed? Or will people have to spend the rest of their lives avoiding light?

Many unknowns remain, and the questions are fascinating. Hopefully more research will tell us in more detail what the future might hold. The goal is pain control without side effects or dangers. Perhaps science can answer this need and bring an end to the scourge of opioid addiction and accidental death.

Meanwhile, here at Novus, we’re busy dealing with the real world of today – the seemingly endless problems of opioid painkiller use and abuse. And the message is this: Don’t hesitate to pick up that phone and call us if you or someone you care about is troubled by drugs or alcohol. We’re the experts, and we’ll do our level best to answer all your questions and get you the help you need.

There is hope for a new life. Call to speak to one of our experienced & caring detox advisors today!

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