A Moment of Science

Spicy Source of Pain Relief

Have you heard that hot peppers might be the key to a new type of anesthetic that blocks pain without making you numb or paralyzed?

Lots of P Hot Peppers

Photo: David Reeves (flickr)

Hot peppers might be the key to a new type of anesthetic from capsaicin, which gives hot peppers their heat.

Have you heard that hot peppers might be the key to a new type of anesthetic that blocks pain without making you numb or paralyzed?

Researchers in San Francisco discovered that capsaicin, the compound that gives hot peppers their heat, binds to certain ion channels on the surface of pain-sensing neurons called nociceptors.

Most local anesthetics work by blocking the activity of all neurons, including nociceptors, but also neurons that sense touch or control muscles. So the pain sensation is effectively blocked, but so is all the feeling in that area.

A later study at Harvard Medical School found that when capsaicin is bound to the channels on nociceptors, it causes those channels to open like pores in the neuron’s membrane. They discovered that the pores were just large enough for molecules of an anesthetic called QX-314 to enter and block the neuron’s activity.

The capsaicin and QX-314 combo was successfully tested in mice, but scientists are still not sure if it will work for humans. They hope that this discovery will ultimately lead to a way for doctors to block pain without generalized numbness or paralysis.

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