In a groundbreaking study recently published in the journal Communications Biology, researchers have discovered that certain gene variants inherited from Neanderthals can significantly influence an individual’s sensitivity to pain. This revelation is particularly pronounced among populations with a dominant Native American ancestry.
Delving into the SCN9A Gene
The research centered on three specific versions of the SCN9A gene. This gene plays a pivotal role in the human body, coding for a protein responsible for allowing sodium to enter cells. This process is crucial for pain-detecting nerves to transmit signals effectively. The study found that individuals carrying any of these three gene variants displayed a heightened sensitivity to pain when subjected to the prod of a sharp object. Interestingly, this increased sensitivity did not extend to pain sensations caused by heat or pressure.
Building on Previous Discoveries
This recent study builds upon findings from 2020 when another group of researchers identified a connection between these Neanderthal gene variants and increased pain sensitivity in people of European descent. The current research took a broader approach, focusing on Latin Americans. The results were enlightening, revealing that these Neanderthal genetic variants are notably more common in individuals with significant Native American ancestry. Furthermore, the study provided insights into the specific type of pain these variants influence, a detail that had remained elusive until now.
A Comprehensive Analysis
To ensure the accuracy of their findings, the research team analyzed genetic samples from over 5,900 participants spanning countries like Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. The data indicated that roughly 30% of these participants carried one of the SCN9A gene variants, specifically D1908G. Meanwhile, about 13% had the other two variants, V991L and M932L. Notably, participants from Peru, who boasted the highest proportion of Native American ancestry, were most inclined to possess these Neanderthal gene variants.
In addition to the genetic analysis, the researchers conducted pain threshold tests on more than 1,600 volunteers in Colombia. The results were consistent: participants with any of the Neanderthal gene variants indicated discomfort with significantly smaller stimuli compared to those without the variants.
Speculations and Future Implications
Pierre Faux, the study’s lead author, postulated that these gene variants might have conferred some survival advantage to Neanderthals and the first humans who settled in the Americas. However, he emphasized that this advantage might not be directly related to pain sensitivity. The heightened sensitivity to sharp objects could potentially be an unintended consequence of another evolutionary adaptation.
While the exact evolutionary pressures that influenced the SCN9A gene remain a subject of debate and further research, this study undoubtedly adds a significant piece to the puzzle of human evolution and our shared history with Neanderthals.
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