[Magazine] Scientific American Mind. Vol. 20. No 5

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No one knows for sure why some injuries, even minor ones, result in persistent pain or why it occurs in some people but not in others. Nevertheless, researchers are pinpointing telltale changes in the neurons that underlie persistent pain. In particular, they have documented abnormal excitability among neurons at every level of the body’s pain network. For instance, in the spinal cord, some cells aberrantly amplify pain signals after undergoing a type of molecular “learning” that is similar to what happens in the brain during the formation of long-term memories.

G E T T Y I M AG E S (e x e r c i s i n g ) ; AG E F O T O S T O C K ( p u z z l e s o l v i n g ) Exercise and intellectual challenges such as puzzle solving might help chronic pain patients combat the cognitive decline that can occasionally accompany their condition. ing medicines are geared toward countering abnormal activation of nociceptors. Some of these therapeutics act as “sponges” to absorb inflammatory proteins or nerve growth factors that are thought to boost the excitability of these pain-transmitting neurons.

This is much cheaper than the pharmaceutical pathway, with far fewer side effects. And as a means of keeping the doctor at bay, it is also likely to prove much more enjoyable. M (Further Reading) ◆ Perceiving Pervasive Discrimination among African Americans: Impli- cations for Group Identification and Well-being. Nyla R. Branscombe, Michael T. Schmitt and Richard D. Harvey in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 77, No. 1, pages 135–149; July 1999. ◆ Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

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