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Science

Infection Is a Real Pain in the Everything

¡Viva la Science!

MRSA, could you be any worse-a?
prep4md via Flickr
MRSA, could you be any worse-a?

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is not only terrible to saythat, of course, is why we shorten its name to MRSA and pronounce it “mer-suh,” like it’s some kind of Aquaman sidekickbut the potent, stubborn infections it creates are especially horrible. For one thing, they’re really difficult to cure. (That’s the resistant part of the nameantibiotics, our standard weapons against infection, are exactly what they’re resistant to.) For another, MRSA-caused infections, whose symptoms include everything from boils to fever, can be extremely painful.

But what causes all that pain? Until now, doctors believed it was an immune system response. According to this theory, your body basically screams, Holy crap I’ve been invaded! I’d better alert the brain! [Stab stab stab.] Your brain says, Ouch! Okay, dude, I’ve got it. But your body refuses to shut the hell up. [Stab stab stab.]

Not so, says a new study published in Nature on Aug. 21. You’re not wracked with pain because of your body’s immune response, but because of the bacteria itself. The pain associated with MRSA isn’t your body trying to alert you to the problem; it’s actually one of the effects of the problem. "We found that major parts of the immune system are not necessary for pain during infection, but that bacteria themselves are the source of much of the pain,” says Isaac Chiu, PhD, the study's lead author.

The whole study came about because Chiu and coauthor Christian A. Von Hehn, MD, PhD, wanted to see what would happen when they cultured sensory neurons and immune cells in the same petri dish. Much to their surprise, the neurons responded to the bacteria “immediately,” says Chiu.

The study made another surprising discovery: Once pain neurons can tell that nasty invading bacteria are present, the immune system should leap into action to fight off the intruders, right? Because that's supposedly the whole point of pain neurons and an immune system and all those other intricate bits. But the scientists instead observed that the pain neurons suppressed the immune system.

It seems like a terrible idea. Something hurts! the pain neurons are apparently tweeting their friends. Let's totally not raise the alarm. Pretend everything's fine! How did it evolve that way in the first place? The question needs to be studied a lot more, but Chiu hypothesizes that our neurons might be trying to protect our body from the additional damage caused by inflammation, part of the immune system response. (Inflammation, though useful in battling infection, can cause damage to the body when it happens too often.) Those wily bacteria just might be taking advantage of a loophole.

Figuring out how pain and MRSA go hand-in-horrible-hand isn't merely an academic question. The hope is that studies like these will help doctors and scientists figure out how to deal with other serious infections and eliminate the pain that inevitably comes along with them. Let’s hope they do it soon, because ouch.

Source: Medical News Today

News

The Daily Word 12.16.10: Afghanistan, DADT, WikiLeaks, Bill Richardon, Meat, Winona Ryder

It’s raining, it’s snowing. The old man is … growing?

A decade of the U.S. in Afghanistan and conditions have never been worse.

The Senate has enough votes to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

WikiLeaks dude released on bail as the U.S. scrambles to build a conspiracy case against him.

Year-end lists! The top “Daily Show” segments and “fashion moments” of 2010.

Richardson arrives in Pyongyang, pulls the plug on a N.M. wild horse haven.

The FDA finally tells us how much antibiotic is sprinkled into our meat. (This week’s Miss Diagnosis health column is on antibiotics, while we’re on the subject.)

New York Times online will revert back to a pay-site model sometime next month.

2011's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees include Neil Diamond, but not Mike Diamond.


Winona Ryder emerges from her protective cocoon.

V.19 No.50 | 12/16/2010

Miss Diagnosis

Germicidal Tendencies

The sore throat starts on Monday. Tuesday adds a headache and congestion. On Wednesday, you ask to leave work after almost hacking up your lungs onto a client, but your boss is being uptight. So you tough it out and go home exhausted, skipping dinner and falling into bed. You feel a little better on Thursday, so off to work you go. But by Thursday night, you feel like the victim of a hit-and-run. So you call the doctor early Friday. She can squeeze you in that afternoon. You ask your boss if you can leave early for a doctor’s appointment. He gives you a disapproving look like you’re a naughty 4-year-old, informing you that he’ll need to see a doctor’s note.

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