Itching for a solution? Researchers may have a clue,
It’s a familiar sensation, particularly among lovers of wool sweaters or frequent victims of insect bites, but itchiness and its causes have long been a source of contentious debate among scientists. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine now think they may have come up with an answer to the burning question, “Why do we itch?”
The scientists say they have identified specific nerve cells in mice that are responsible for sending itch signals to the nervous system. Their findings, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, could settle decades of bickering about how the human body processes feelings of pain versus feelings of itch.
The infighting has been fueled by uncertainty about whether certain nerve cells, equipped to respond to both itchy and painful stimuli, were sending both signals to the brain. Based on these latest findings, researchers concluded that nerve cells with an itch receptor known as MrgA3 send itch messages to the brain whether they’re exposed to painful or itchy stimuli.
In one of their experiments, researchers bred mice so that their MrgA3 cells were the only cells capable of responding to a pain-producing peppery substance. After injecting the substance into the cheeks of the mice, the scientists observed their furry subjects frantically scratching their little mouse cheeks instead of massaging their mouths in pain, as was expected. ( Outliers apologizes to any mice-loving readers.)
That reaction suggested to the research team that MrgA3 cells were sending itch messages regardless of the stimulus.
“Now that we have disentangled these itchy sensations from the painful ones, we should be able to design drugs that target itchspecific nerve cells to combat chronic itchiness,” said Xinzhong Dong, an associate professor in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins and the study’s lead author.
But there could still be some rough patches ahead. The scientists acknowledged in the study that MrgA3 cells may not be the only nerve cells in the body to respond to itchy stimuli, suggesting they might just be starting to scratch the surface of the problem.
That garbled text could be a warning
Add “dystextia” to the diagnostic terms physicians can throw around. And while it’s about the oft-annoying subject of text-messaging, Outliers will refrain from too much smart aleckery, since it involves a serious topic. It seems jumbled, nonsensical text messages can be a sign of stroke. In a recent article in Archives of Neurology, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and his colleagues detailed a case they encountered. A pregnant woman went in for a routine checkup, came out of the office and texted her husband.
But the text made no sense, concerning her husband enough to take her to the emergency room. Turns out, she was having a stroke. Since the woman had lost her voice due to a cold, her dystextia was the key clue her physicians had to her problem.
“The dystextia was the first clinical sign that we had that she was having a stroke,” Dr. Joshua Klein told National Public Radio.
The woman had no permanent damage and recovered her ability to speak (and text).
In search of livelier reading
Outliers is sure you’re familiar with the phenomenon: You’re waiting (… and waiting) in the doctor’s office or a hospital, and all there is to read is a 10-year-old copy of Golf.
One magazine is doing what it can to fight that syndrome by donating piles of its back issues to cancer treatment centers. It seems an editor of Mental Floss was undergoing chemotherapy and needed a little extra diversion during treatment. “The only magazines are ones that get left behind by previous patients, which largely results in an eclectic mix of trade mags. (I’m sure Paper Age and National Guard are both fine publications, but they’re not exactly general interest titles),” Ethan Trex wrote in his blog. Outliers assumes he wasn’t referring to Modern Healthcare, of course.
Mental Floss, an eclectic magazine that bills itself as “an intelligent read, but not too intelligent,” asked its readers to suggest more cancer centers that could use some back issues. If you have suggestions, you could drop them a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There could be another Deval Patrick out there. Maybe it’s Don Berwick.”
—Philip Johnston, a former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, in a Boston Globe story about the former CMS administrator considering a run for governor
of the state in 2014 to succeed Patrick.
Got an itch? New research seems to have pinpointed the source.
Sometimes you need entertaining reading.