How Do Painkillers Find & Kill Pain?

iStock
iStock

First, we need to make a distinction between the two main classes of painkillers, which are used for different situations and function via different mechanisms.

The first class is the narcotic opioid drugs. These are the heavy-duty drugs, like morphine and codeine, used to treat severe pain. They relieve pain in two ways: first by interfering with and blocking the transmission of pain signals to the brain, and then by working in the brain to alter the sensation of pain. These drugs neither find nor kill pain, but reduce and alter the user's perception of the pain. They're kind of like having an optimistic friend that says, "Hey man, everything will be cool. Nothing's wrong. Here, look at this shiny, distracting thing!"

The other class is the aspirin drugs, like paracetamol and ibuprofen. These are the over the counter drugs we reach for whenever we've got a headache or a sore back. Throughout history, people all over the world were using botanical remedies for pain. The ancient Egyptians used leaves from the myrtle bush, Europeans chewed on hunks of willow bark and Native Americans did the same with birch bark. In the nineteenth century, scientists isolated the chemical in all these plants that gave them their pain relieving properties: salicin (which is metabolized to salicylic acid when consumed). They also discovered that these chemicals produced the side effect of horrendous digestive problems (which answers that other burning question, "Why is that Native American in that old commercial crying?").

Bayer aspirin
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Eventually, a scientist at Bayer Pharmaceutical synthesized a less harmful derivative chemical, acetylsalicylic acid (ASA). Bayer dubbed it Aspirin and commercialized it. Hoffmann went on to develop a "non-addictive" substitute for morphine. The resulting product, heroin, was less successful than aspirin.

Despite its long history, we didn't discover how aspirin works until the early 1970s. Unlike narcotics, aspirin drugs are real workhorses that actually go to the source of pain and stop it. When cells are damaged, they produce large quantities of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase-2. This enzyme, in turn, produces chemicals called prostaglandins, which send pain signals to the brain. They also cause the area that has been damaged to release fluid from the blood to create a cushion so the damaged cells don't take any more of a beating. This cushion is the swelling and inflammation that goes along with our aches and pains. When we take aspirin, it dissolves in our stomachs and travels through the whole body via the bloodstream. Although it's everywhere, it only works its magic at the site of cell damage by binding to the cylooxygenase-2 enzymes and stopping them from prostaglandins. No more prostaglandins means no more pain signals. The cells at the damage site, of course, are still damaged, but we're left blissfully unaware.

This prostaglandin-stopping power is also why people take aspirin regularly to reduce the risk of heart attacks, since prostaglandins in the bloodstream can cause clotting. Additionally, aspirin reduces the production of thromboxane, a chemical that makes platelets, a type of blood cell, sticky. With aspirin in our systems, platelets make less thromboxane and are less likely to form a clot and block an artery.

What You Need to Know About Acute Flaccid Myelitis, the Polio-Like Disease That's Spreading in Kids

iStock.com/Sasiistock
iStock.com/Sasiistock

The rapid spread of a polio-like disease across the U.S. is causing concern within the medical community. Since the start of 2018, there have been 127 reported cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), with 62 of those cases confirmed in 22 states, NBC reports. Unlike polio, there's no vaccine for AFM, and doctors aren't entirely sure what causes it or how it spreads. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging people to educate themselves on the condition.

AFM is a disease that attacks the gray matter of the victim's spinal cord, which can cause serious damage to the central nervous system. Symptoms like muscle weakness, facial drooping, limb paralysis, and trouble swallowing or slurred speech can manifest quickly and require immediate medical attention. There is no specific way to treat the disease or reverse its effects, but physical therapy can help some victims regain mobility.

The condition usually develops following a viral infection, such as enterovirus and West Nile virus, but there's no one virus is linked to AFM. Environmental toxins and autoimmune diseases can also trigger it.

Acute flaccid myelitis has been on the rise since 2014, and the CDC expects to see a higher-than-average number of cases this year. The department isn't sure of what's causing the spike, but even with incidents on the rise, the disease is still incredibly rare. It affects mostly children under age 19, and kids younger than 4 account for most of the cases. The chances of a kid contracting the infection in the U.S. are less than one in 1 million.

To protect yourself and your children against AFM, the CDC recommends following general good health practices. Stay up-to-date on your vaccines, avoid mosquitos, and wash your hands regularly and thoroughly to ward off viruses.

[h/t NBC]

How the Hubble Space Telescope Helped the Fight Against Breast Cancer

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

The beauty of scientific research is that scientists never really know where a particular development might lead. Research on Gila monster venom has led to the invention of medication that helps manage type 2 diabetes, and enzymes discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park are now widely used for DNA replication, a technique used by forensic scientists to analyze crime scenes.

The same rule of thumb applies to NASA scientists, whose work has found dozens of applications outside of space exploration—especially in medicine.

Take the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in 1990, the Hubble has graced us with stunning, intimate photographs of our solar system. But it wasn't always that way—when the telescope was launched, the first images beamed back to earth were awfully fuzzy. The image processing techniques NASA created to solve this problem not only sharpened Hubble's photos, but also had an unexpected benefit: Making mammograms more accurate.

As NASA reports, "When applied to mammograms, software techniques developed to increase the dynamic range and spatial resolution of Hubble's initially blurry images allowed doctors to spot smaller calcifications than they could before, leading to earlier detection and treatment."

That's because the Hubble Space Telescope contains a technology called Charge-Coupled Devices, or CCDs, which are basically electron-trapping gizmos capable of digitizing beams of light. Today, CCDs allow "doctors to analyze the tissue by stereotactic biopsy, which requires a needle rather than surgery," NASA says [PDF]. Back in 1994, NASA predicted that this advancement could reduce national health care costs by approximately $1 billion every year.

And that's just one of the tools NASA has developed that's now being used to fight breast cancer. When cancer researcher Dr. Susan Love was having trouble studying breast ducts—where breast cancer often originates—she turned to research coming out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As Rosalie Chan reports for the Daily Beast, the Jet Propulsion Lab has dedicated vast resources to avoiding the spread of earthly contaminants in space, and its research has included the development of a genomic sequencing technology that is "clean and able to analyze microscopic levels of biomass." As Dr. Love discovered, the same technology is a fantastic way to test for cancer-linked microorganisms in breast duct tissue.

A second technology developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory—the Quantum Well Infrared Photodetector, or QWIP—enables humans to see invisible infrared light in a spectrum of colors, helping scientists discover caves on Mars and study volcanic emissions here on Earth. But it's also useful at the doctor's office: A QWIP medical sensor can detect tiny changes in the breast's blood flow—a sign of cancer—extremely early.

And as any doctor will tell you, that's huge: The earlier cancer is detected, the greater a person's chance of survival.

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