Category Archives: Objects

A life without pain

Most of us don’t like feeling pain, but we know how important it is. Pain is the warning signal that lets us know when we’re injured or ill.

One of the extraordinary people we came across during our research was Steven. He is ordinary in almost every way, but unlike most of us he has a rare condition that means he can’t feel any pain.

‘When I’m overcome with nausea, exhaustion or aches it may just be a cold, but it could be deadly serious like a burst appendix. My life is full of potentially dangerous situations because I don’t feel pain.’

Clinical geneticist Geoff Woods was among the first to report that some people who don’t feel pain carry a genetic mutation that affects the pain-sensing nerves in their bodies. None of their pain receptors send signals to their brains. Geoff explains:

‘Some painless people have a small mutation in an area of their genetic code that is essential to make a pain channel in their nerves. Without the channel it’s impossible to send pain signals to the brain. By studying people like Steven’s DNA we can eventually understand why he doesn’t feel pain. More importantly, it tells us how the rest of us do.’

Powerful gene sequencers such as this one can read an entire human genome in one day and identify the no-pain genetic mutation. We’ve got our hands on this clever piece of kit for Pain Less.

Natural born painkillers

Researchers are now working to understand exactly how this mutation blocks pain signals to the brain to try and mimic it, and create the ultimate painkiller.

They may have found the answer from a very unusual source – snake and spider venom. Venom is a cocktail of different molecules used to incapacitate prey and deter predators.

Biochemist Glenn King is investigating some molecules in this noxious mix that stop pain in the same way as the no-pain genetic mutation. These molecules block a channel in the body’s nerves to stop pain signals from reaching the brain.

So rather than start from scratch to synthesise these complex molecules, pharmaceutical companies are looking to venomous sea snails, spiders, snakes and scorpions to provide vital ingredients for the next generation of painkillers.

Jasmine’s favourite find

Jasmine Spavieri, one of our Assistant Content Developers, describes how she sourced one of the most striking objects in our exhibition…

‘One exceptional story we found was that of Steve Trim, a former chronic pain patient and a pain researcher. After finding a treatment that worked to cure his pain, Steve was inspired to accept a job working in pain research.

‘He discovered that the use of venom as a potential medication is a growing field of research. He decided to start his own biotech company – or as we like to call it “venom farm” – and is now the director of Venomtech. His laboratory provides an array of “fresh” venoms, from snakes to spiders and scorpions. Steve also gives educational talks to school groups and answered the questions of our young participatory group from Langley Academy.

‘Steve has been kind enough to provide us with what I think is one of our coolest objects, the skin and fangs of a huge tarantula, along with some milking equipment!’

I’m relieved it’s not a snake – they give me the heebie-jeebies.

Tell me when it hurts

One particularly interesting piece of research we are exploring in Pain Less is all about the power of the mind…

I’m not a morning person, and every now and then when I drag myself out of bed and, bleary-eyed, wander towards the bathroom, I stub my toe on an inconveniently placed step. It has to be the most unreasonably painful experience for first thing in the morning. According to new research, my grumpy morning mood may actually contribute to my pain. Neuroscientist Irene Tracey believes the power of the mind can drastically change the extent of our pain, and that feelings of sadness and anxiety can increase the level of pain we experience.

‘Emotions, how sad or anxious you feel, change the way signals from damaged parts of the body are processed by the brain – the organ that produces the experience of pain – so they directly influence the pain felt by the subject.’

But how does she test this?

‘I look for volunteers to experience pain in controlled laboratory experiments. When the volunteer is anxious or depressed, they feel pain more intensely. During some tests I make the volunteers feel depressed by playing slow sad music and getting them to read negative things about themselves. It may seem harsh but doing this is helps us to understand the impact our mind has on our perception of pain. This means future pain treatments might target both the body and the mind.’

And how does Irene measure people’s response to pain?

One example is this special ‘poking’ equipment, which Irene uses to do what are called Von Frey Filament tests. It ensures her willing victims all experience the same level of pain. Irene has pointed us in the direction of where we can get our hands on our own set of these pain-inflicting sticks for Pain Less – for display purposes only of course!

To get more accurate results Irene also uses some more hi-tech poking devices – lasers. These heat the skin to 50 degrees Celsius, and we hope to get hold of one of these for the exhibition too…

No pain, more game

The Games in London saw some extraordinary feats of human endeavour. This is especially true in the case of athletes who have lost a limb, yet can achieve things many able-bodied people can’t. People who have lost a limb may face a number of difficulties and one of the most bizarre is pain in their missing limb.

The phantom limb…

Phantom limb is the sensation that an amputated or missing limb, or even an organ, is still attached to the body. In some cases people feel as if their missing limb is gesturing, itchy or even trying to pick things up. People have reported sensations such as water trickling down the phantom limb, or a phantom ring becoming too tight for a phantom finger. And in the majority of cases this sensation is painful.

Neuroscientists think the problem could be caused by the brain rewiring itself incorrectly after the loss of the limb. The brain receives lots of sensory messages from the body. Once a set of these sensory inputs is lost, the brain has to rewire itself, and this is where the trouble can start.


Vilayanur Ramachandran is studying how to trick the brain into correcting this wiring problem and therefore relieving the pain. He uses a mirror box to fool the brain into thinking the limb is still there.

However, new technologies may provide a more hi-tech way to trick the brain.

Play your way to less pain…

Games have come a long way since I played Super Mario Bros. on my Game Boy.

Virtual reality research at the University of Manchester may help some patients with phantom limb pain.

Computer scientist Steve Pettifer, from the University of Manchester, has paired up with pain medicine consultant Ilan Lieberman to create an immersive virtual reality that allows people to move virtual limbs, gradually rewiring the mismatch between the mind and body. In the future, people could be able to access this virtual world from the comfort of their living room using an Xbox Kinect.

We have one of these setups for Pain Less.

Are you conscious?

Count down from ten…

Have you ever been put under general anaesthetic before surgery? I have, and when the anaesthetist asked me to count down from ten, I got as far as eight before I was out cold. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the ward, tonsil free, and looking forward to a two-week diet of painkillers and ice cream. Most of us assume that when the drugs knock us out, that’s it; we feel nothing until the effects of the drugs wear off. But is this really the case?

Andrew Morley is an anaesthetist. He regularly sedates patients for minor surgery. For this, he uses a general anaesthetic drug called propofol at a low, or ‘sedative’, dose. Under these circumstances apparently some patients respond to pain while they’re under.

‘Patients do appear to experience pain from time to time during procedures under sedation – I take their response as a prompt and give them painkillers and top up their sedation. Afterwards they very often have no memory of the pain.’

This suggests that we may experience pain during surgery even when under sedation, but not remember it after. If you can’t remember pain, does it matter?

Psychologist Jackie Andrade thinks it does:

‘You may be aware during surgery but not completely remember it. Partial or “implicit” memories of these situations might lead to psychological stress and longer recovery times.’

Questions like this, and the incredibly rare cases where patients remember specific events of awareness during major surgery under general anaesthesia, have prompted researchers to come up with new ways to measure consciousness to ensure we really are out for the count, when it counts.
Meet fEITER, a portable scanner that can project a real-time video of the brain’s activity as it slides into unconsciousness. Once anaesthetists understand exactly what this activity means, this new invention might help them to understand more about their patients’ awareness.

Unfortunately, there are only two of these scanners in the world and the scientists couldn’t spare one for a whole year for Pain Less.

But we have managed to get our object-handling gloves on one of these…

This is called a BIS monitor. I’ll leave it to our expert anaesthetist Andrew to explain:

‘This machine continuously records the electrical activity on the surface of the brain. It then analyses these “brain waves” using a mathematical formula to come up with a number that reflects the likelihood of the patient being conscious. Some anaesthetists use the monitor to adjust the dosage of anaesthetic drugs to keep their patient unconscious. Others are sceptical about how effective machines are at monitoring consciousness.’

I’ll be back soon with more stories of success (or disappointment) from the object quest.