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Why Does Pain Hurt? Scientists Find the Neurons That Cause Our Aches

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what causes our body to feel pain

Pain can light up all regions of the body, making us feel bad. Scientists have now found the brain cells behind that agony. (Credit: Lightspring/shutterstock)

A group of researchers have found the brain cells responsible for the emotional unpleasantness of pain — well, they’ve at least found them in mice. But the results, published in Science, could help scientists develop new treatments for chronic pain if that same cluster of cells exits in humans.

“While painful stimuli are detected by nerves,” says Gregory Scherrer, one of the study’s authors, in a press release, “this information doesn’t mean anything emotionally until it reaches the brain. So we set out to find the cells in the brain that are behind the unpleasantness of pain.”

Scherrer and his team, based at Stanford University, started by zeroing in on the amygdala, a part of the brain that’s long been known to be key in regulating emotions. While exposing mice to a quick, painful stimulus — a drop of hot (but not scalding) water on one of their paws — the group, with the help of brain imaging, spotted some neurons that were more active than when the mice weren’t dealing with any painful stimuli.

“But that really only tells you that those neurons were active at some point, and it’s not specific enough,” says Scherrer. “What we wanted was to look at the neurons of freely moving animals.”

So they mounted a so-called miniscope, about the length of a paperclip, onto the rodents’ heads. With these mobile microscopes tracking brain activity, the mice were free to wander their cages and encounter painful stimuli on their own. These stimuli included both uncomfortably hot and cold drops of water, neither of which were extreme enough in temperature to actually hurt the mice. When the critters came into contact with the drops, they withdrew. And the neurons the researchers had flagged earlier? They lit up again — a more concrete clue that pointed to these brain cells as the ones responsible for the unpleasantness the brain associates with pain.

Teasing Out the Emotions of Pain

To make sure this brain activity was actually linked to the negative emotions of pain and not just emotions in general, Scherrer and his team drilled down even more. This time, they gave the mice a sweet treat: sugar water. If those same neurons that lit up when the mice touched the hot and cold drops also lit up while the rodents were slurping away, then the team would know they were off-track. But the miniscopes showed nothing.

“After all of that, we concluded that this ensemble of neurons selectively responds during pain” Scherrer says. “But it still didn’t fully demonstrate that they underpinned the emotional response.”

One last test would help him and his team tie that emotional response to the neurons. They set up a surface divvied up into three invisible sections for the mice. One was uncomfortably hot, another uncomfortably cold and the last was a normal temperature. They let two different groups of mice explore this surface. One group was just a regular control group, but in the second group of mice, the scientists had muted the response of the amygdala neurons they’d flagged in previous portions of the study.

The control mice quickly realized which lane was a comfortable temperature and stuck to it. But the mice with the altered amygdalae, though they still reacted to the hot and cold lanes by pulling their paws away, quickly adjusted and walked about all of the lanes without preference. “Pain was just no longer unpleasant for them,” Scherrer says.

And this distinction is an important one. If researchers can find this same cluster of cells in humans, it could help unlock new treatments for people suffering from chronic pain. “There’s really no good treatment for chronic pain in humans,” Scherrer says. “And that’s a major driver of the opioid epidemic. But you’ll notice, patients who take opioids for pain report that they can still feel the sensation of pain but say it’s less bothersome. The emotions of pain are different.”

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Ecology

Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science

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YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Ecology

Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth

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Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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Ecology

COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0

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We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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