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May 22, 2014 01:57 PM EDT

Blocking Pain Receptors May Treat Obesity, Diabetes

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Blocking Pain receptors may hold the key to treating obesity, and diabetes, and improving metabolic health, according to a recent study.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found that blocking transient receptor potential cation channel subfamily V member 1 (TRPV1), a pain receptor,  in mice not only extends their lifespan, it also gives them a more youthful metabolism, including an improved insulin response that allows them to deal better with high blood sugar.

"We think that blocking this pain receptor and pathway could be very, very useful not only for relieving pain, but for improving lifespan and metabolic health, and in particular for treating diabetes and obesity in humans," Andrew Dillin, senior author of the study and a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement. "As humans age they report a higher incidence of pain, suggesting that pain might drive the aging process."

TRPV1 is a receptor found in the skin, nerves and joints that reacts to extremely high temperatures and other painful stimuli. Researchers said the "hot" compound in chili peppers, capsaicin, is already known to activate this pain receptor.

Researchers said TRPV1 is often called the capsaicin receptor. Constant activation of the receptor on a nerve cell results in death of the neuron, mimicking loss of TRPV1, which could explain why diets rich in capsaicin have been linked to a lower incidence of diabetes and metabolic problems in humans.

Dillin and his colleagues found that mice genetically manipulated to lack TRPV1 receptors lived, on average, nearly four months - or about 14 percent - longer than normal mice. The TRPV1-deficient mice also showed signs of a youthful metabolism late in life, due to low levels of CGRP - a molecule that blocks insulin release resulting in increased blood glucose levels and thus could contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.

"Our findings suggest that pharmacological manipulation of TRPV1 and CGRP may improve metabolic health and longevity," Dillin said. "Alternatively, chronic ingestion of compounds that affect TRPV1 might help prevent metabolic decline with age and lead to increased longevity in humans."

The findings were recently published in the journal Cell.

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