Research suggests existence of itch-specific nerve cells

Discovery could eventually lead to better treatments for chronic itch

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have uncovered evidence of the existence of nerve cells in mice that signal itch but not pain, a finding that, if confirmed in humans, could aid in the development of treatments for chronic itch, including itch sometimes caused by life-saving medications.

A report on the discovery published online last month by Nature Neuroscience suggests that itch-specific sensory nerve cells receive information from the skin and relay it to other nerves in the spinal cord, which then coordinates a response to the stimulus. Even when those nerve cells receive stimuli that are normally pain-inducing, the message they send isn't "That hurts!" but rather "That itches!"

"Now that we have disentangled these itchy sensations from painful ones, we should be able to design drugs that target itch-specific nerve cells to combat chronic itchiness," said Xinzhong Dong, associate professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "We hope that this will not only provide relief, but also increase people's faithfulness to their drug plans, particularly for deadly diseases like malaria and cancer."

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