At 71, this woman has never felt anxiety or pain. Now scientists know why.

A new case study published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia investigated a woman who feels almost no pain, and heals without forming any scars. The kicker? She didn’t realize that this wasn’t normal until she was in her 60s.

This was discovered after she had surgery on her hand, and did not require painkillers afterwards. Gizmodo reports:

The woman had previously been diagnosed with arthritis in her hip, which she didn’t feel despite the “severe degree of joint degeneration,” according to the paper. She lived a long life of painlessness before realizing something strange was happening, reporting dental surgeries without anesthesia, painless cuts and broken bones, and even burns in which it took smelling her charred flesh to notice something was amiss. She even told the researchers she could eat scotch bonnet chili peppers with no effects other than a “‘pleasant glow’ in her mouth.” Oh, and she rarely felt any sort of anxiety, depression, fear, or panic—not even during a recent car accident, according to the paper.

Hold up – no anxiety or depression? WHAT?!?! Lucky.

And to put the “pleasant glow” in perspective, a scotch bonnet pepper have a heat rating of 80,000–400,000 Scoville units. Compare this to the average jalapeño peppers, which have a heat rating of 2,500 to 8,000 units.

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Her seemingly superhuman abilities (or inabilities?) are due to a rare mutation in her genome, as Gizmodo explained:

Her doctors recommended she speak to the pain genetics team from University College London, who sequenced parts of her, her children’s, and her mother’s genomes and asked them about their pain tolerance. The culprit appeared to be a small set of missing DNA in the FAAH-OUT “pseudogene,” essentially degraded versions of fully functional genes once thought to be “junk” but which often do have a role. The woman also had a single switched nucleotide (the DNA building blocks) in her FAAH gene, the one responsible for an enzyme called fatty acid amide hydrolase. Previous studies have also shown that people with small variations in their FAAH gene have less anxiety and feel less pain.

The paper points out that previous drug trials attempting to stop pain by inhibiting FAAH production haven’t been fruitful. But, perhaps targeting the FAAH-OUT pseudogene instead might be a better strategy.

They go on to point out that the FAAH gene isn’t the only gene known to affect people’s sensation of pain. There is also a professor in Italy who feels no pain due to a mutation in her ZFHX2 gene.

For people like me who have been diagnosed with a disorder that causes chronic pain, not being able to feel pain seems like a dream (and being able to eat insanely hot peppers would be cool, too!).

But as bad as it can be, pain is good for us because it lets us know when something isn’t right. If you break your toe or strain a muscle, your body tells you something is wrong by giving you the sensation of pain. Otherwise, you would be blissfully unaware that your foot was about to fall off, which is bad if you want to maintain possession of your foot. But, you know, you do you.

What makes this exciting is that it gives researchers insight into how our genes affect our pain receptors. One of the goals of doing research in this field is to move away from using opioids – which act like a sledgehammer in your brain – and instead use more precise drugs/methods to reduce or eliminate pain in a safe manner without risking addiction or side effects.

Cover image via iStockphoto

Written by Dan Broadbent

Science Enthusiast. Atheist. Lover of cats.




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