Scientists Crack Code on Why Red Heads Can Tolerate Higher Levels of Pain

Did you know red heads are rumored to tolerate higher levels of pain? According to research, this is not just a rumor. Investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have helped demystify the rumor and prove it to be a fact. Here’s what they found. (1)

Red Heads And Pain

Red heads have an inactive receptor that allows most people to produce brown/black melanin pigment that creates that “healthy” sun kissed glow known as a tan. According to studies by David E. Fisher, MD, PhD, director of the Mass General Cancer Center’s Melanoma Program and director of MGH’s Cutaneous Biology Research Center, this inability is related to melanocytes and a variant form of the melanocortin 1 receptor found on the cell surfaces of most people’s skin. (1)

Fisher’s latest study focused on pain thresholds in red-haired individuals, using a strain of red-haired mice. Like their human counterparts, these mice also lack the melanocortin 1 receptor function. As a result, these mice exhibit higher pain thresholds. (1)

Red Heads And Pain Study

Red haired mice and humans share an elevated basal pain threshold as well as increased sensitivity to opioid analgesics. This is also related to a loss of melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) function which in turn decreases melanocytic proopiomelanocortin transcription and systemic melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH) levels in the mice. (2,1)

The team’s research discovered loss of melanocortin 1 receptor function was responsible for the mice’s melanocytes producing a lower level of a molecule called POMC (proopiomelanocortin). POMC includes hormones that sensitize to pain as well as one that actually blocks it. Together these hormones help keep some balance between the opioid receptors that stop pain and melanocortin 4 receptors that cause an enhanced perception of pain. (1)

Lowered Hormones And Higher Pain Threshold

So what does this mean to the red-haired mice and potentially red haired humans? Looking at the study, the results should logically have pointed to the hormones having an effect that cancels each other out. Instead, because non-melanocyte-related factors that activate opioid receptors are produced that are also involved in blocking pain, overall what happens is levels of the melanocyte-related hormones are lowered, which results in a higher threshold for pain. (1)

“These findings describe the mechanistic basis behind earlier evidence suggesting varied pain thresholds in different pigmentation backgrounds,” says Fisher. “Understanding this mechanism provides validation of this earlier evidence and a valuable recognition for medical personnel when caring for patients whose pain sensitivities may vary.” (1)

Red Heads And Pain Potential 

What is most intriguing about the findings is that it could pave the way to create a more natural way to manage pain through medication. It could help researchers create a medication that manipulates how the body perceives pain using the body’s own processes. If they can inhibit melanocortin 4 receptors it could help reduce how people sense pain. (1)

“Our ongoing work is focused on elucidating how additional skin-derived signals regulate pain and opioid signaling,” says research co-lead author Lajos V. Kemény, MD, PhD, a research fellow in Dermatology at MGH. “Understanding these pathways in depth may lead to the identification of novel pain-modulating strategies.” (1)



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