Redheads feel less pain: People with ginger hair are less sensitive due to genetic quirk.
A new study has found that redheads could be less susceptible to pain than people with other hair colours.
Researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital found that the cells that dictate a person’s hair colour – called melanocytes – could be important in determining a person’s pain threshold.
Right, are you all ready for the science bit? Because here we go.
A genetic mutation in people with red hair means their melanocytes have a faulty key receptor and can’t make the dark pigment that causes skin to go tanned.
But this imbalance could also have a knock-on effect on hormones, which leads to an enhanced effect of the pain-stopping opioid receptors.
In the study, which was published in Science Advances, researchers studied mice with red-coloured fur – the animals’ skin cells are apparently similar to those in humans, and the cause of red hair is comparable between mice and people.
The study’s lead author Dr David Fischer said: “These findings describe the mechanistic basis behind earlier evidence suggesting varied pain thresholds in different pigmentation backgrounds.
“Understanding this mechanism provides validation of this earlier evidence and a valuable recognition for medical personnel when caring for patients whose pain sensitivities may vary.”
The melanocyte receptor in question is called melanocortin 1 and it’s the one responsible for producing colouration when people spend time in the sun.
In redheads this receptor doesn’t work, which is why they tend to burn in the sun rather than get a tan.
As well as stopping them from getting a bronzy, the defective reception alters the production of a chemical called proopiomelanocortin or POMC for short, which then impacts numerous hormones that create a balance between pain-inhibiting and pain-enhancing receptors.
In those blessed with red hair, this damaged melanocortin 1 causes less of the POMC to be produced – therefore the balance of hormones is thrown off and the effect of the pain-killing opioid receptors is boosted.
Of course, for now this study has only been carried out on mice, so researchers will need to do further work to determine if this applies to humans.
Co-lead author Lajos V. Kemény added: “Our ongoing work is focused on elucidating how additional skin-derived signals regulate pain and opioid signalling.
“Understanding these pathways in depth may lead to the identification of novel pain-modulating strategies.”