Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Scientists unravel mechanisms in chronic itching

Date:
October 15, 2013
Source:
Washington University in St. Louis
Summary:
New research shows that chronic itching, which can occur in many medical conditions, is different from the urge to scratch a mosquito bite. Chronic itching appears to incorporate more than just the nerve cells that normally transmit itch signals. In chronic itching, neurons that send itch signals also co-opt pain neurons to intensify the itch sensation.

In genetically engineered mice that are prone to chronic itching, researchers identified elevated signaling (shown in red) in nerve cells involved in both itch and in pain.
Credit: Washington University Center for the Study of Itch

Anyone who has suffered through sleepless nights due to uncontrollable itching knows that not all itching is the same. New research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis explains why.

Working in mice, the scientists have shown that chronic itching, which can occur in many medical conditions, from eczema and psoriasis to kidney failure and liver disease, is different from the fleeting urge to scratch a mosquito bite.

That's because chronic itching appears to incorporate more than just the nerve cells, or neurons, that normally transmit itch signals. The researchers found that in chronic itching, neurons that send itch signals also co-opt pain neurons to intensify the itch sensation.

The new discovery may lead to more effective treatments for chronic itching that target activity in neurons involved in both pain and itch. The research is reported online Oct. 15 in The Journal of Clinical Investigation and will appear in the November print issue.

"In normal itching, there's a fixed pathway that transmits the itch signal," said senior investigator Zhou-Feng Chen, PhD, who directs Washington University's Center for the Study of Itch. "But with chronic itching, many neurons can be turned into itch neurons, including those that typically transmit pain signals. That helps explain why chronic itching can be so excruciating."

Chen, a professor of anesthesiology, and his colleagues generated mice in which a protein called BRAF always is active and continually sends signals inside itch neurons. The BRAF gene and the protein it makes are involved in the body's pain response, but scientists didn't know whether the gene also played a role in itch.

"We thought the animals might be prone to feeling pain rather than itching," Chen explained. "To our great surprise, the mice scratched spontaneously. At first, we didn't know why they were scratching, but it turns out we developed a mouse model of chronic itch."

Further studies discovered that the BRAF protein could turn on many itch genes, and they showed similar changes of gene expression in mice with chronic itch induced by dry skin and in mice with allergic contact dermatitis, two of the skin conditions that frequently cause people to scratch incessantly.

The findings suggest that targeting proteins in the BRAF pathway may open new avenues for treating chronic itch, a condition in which few therapies are effective. One possibility includes using drugs that are prescribed to treat pain.

"Certain drugs are used to inhibit some of the same targets in patients with chronic pain, and those medications also may quiet down itch," Chen said.

In earlier studies, Chen identified gastrin-releasing peptide (GRP), a substance that carries itch signals to a gene called GRPR (gastrin-releasing peptide receptor) in the spinal cord. In the new study, GRP and GRPR activity was doubled in the genetically altered mice, which could account for some of the increase in the intensity of itching. But other genes that normally are activated by pain also were turned on in the itch pathway, further intensifying the itch sensation.

Surprisingly, however, the mice had a normal response to pain, indicating that the pain and itch pathways are very different.

Unlike scratching a mosquito bite, which usually is only a temporary sensation, chronic itch can persist much longer, according to Chen, also a professor of psychiatry and of developmental biology. His team found that the mice in this study not only scratched spontaneously but also had more severe responses when exposed to substances that normally would induce acute itching.

"In people, chronic itching can last for weeks, months or even years," Chen said. "These mice are helping us to understand the pathways that can be involved in transmitting itch signals and the many contributors to chronic itching. There are many pathways leading from BRAF, and all of these could be potential targets for anti-itch therapies."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Washington University in St. Louis. The original article was written by Jim Dryden. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Zhau ZQ, Huo FQ, Jeffry J, Hampton L, Demehri S, Kim S, Liu XY, Barry DM, Wan L, Liu ZC, Li H, Turkoz A, Ma K, Cornelius LA, Kopan R, Battey JF, Zhong J, Chen ZF. Chronic itch development in sensory neurons requires BRAF signaling pathways. The Journal of Clinical Investigation, November 2013

Cite This Page:

Washington University in St. Louis. "Scientists unravel mechanisms in chronic itching." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 October 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131015123338.htm>.
Washington University in St. Louis. (2013, October 15). Scientists unravel mechanisms in chronic itching. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131015123338.htm
Washington University in St. Louis. "Scientists unravel mechanisms in chronic itching." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131015123338.htm (accessed April 24, 2014).

Share This



More Health & Medicine News

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Big Pharma Braces for M&A Wave

Big Pharma Braces for M&A Wave

Reuters - Business Video Online (Apr. 22, 2014) Big pharma on the move as Novartis boss, Joe Jimenez, tells Reuters about plans to transform his company via an asset exchange with GSK, and Astra Zeneca shares surge on speculation that Pfizer is looking for a takeover. Joanna Partridge reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Study Says Most Crime Not Linked To Mental Illness

Study Says Most Crime Not Linked To Mental Illness

Newsy (Apr. 22, 2014) A new study finds most crimes committed by people with mental illness are not caused by symptoms of their illness or disorder. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Hagel Gets Preview of New High-Tech Projects

Hagel Gets Preview of New High-Tech Projects

AP (Apr. 22, 2014) Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is given hands-on demonstrations Tuesday of some of the newest research from DARPA _ the military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program. (April 22) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
How Smaller Plates And Cutlery Could Make You Feel Fuller

How Smaller Plates And Cutlery Could Make You Feel Fuller

Newsy (Apr. 22, 2014) NBC's "Today" conducted an experiment to see if changing the size of plates and utensils affects the amount individuals eat. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins