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Published online 10 February 2014
While pain is an integral part of existence, very little is known about how it works or why some people are more sensitive to it than others. Better understanding the mechanisms of pain might one day help the one in five people worldwide for which chronic pain is a part of daily life.
An international team of researchers led by Tim Spector from Kings College London, and including two researchers from the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, designed a study to see if see if epigenetics influenced how severe a person feels the same pain.
They examined the genome-wide DNA methylation of 25 pairs of identical twins with dissimilar sensitivity to heat, followed by 50 unrelated individuals and compared a person's pain tolerance to heat with their patterns of DNA methylation, publishing their results in Nature Communications.
There is a correlation between DNA methylation levels and pain sensitivity in nine genes, with the strongest being in the gene TRPA1, which encodes a temperature-sensing channel protein. Further work will be required to determine the biological mechanisms that make these changes affect pain sensitivity, and explain the underlying mechanisms.
These findings highlight the important role of epigenetics can in human diversity and how the methylation of DNA can alter the functions of genes. The researchers say that the same approach can be used to understand genetic variations linked to other complex phenotypes.
"This study is the first of many using discordant twins for different diseases and traits as part of the EU-funded EpiTwin study," says Spector.