Researchers may have discovered the key to developing new and effective treatments for pain, depression and anxiety hidden in the genes of a Scottish woman who, due to two rare genetic mutations, has experienced incredibly low levels of physical and psychological distress throughout her life.
After undergoing a hip replacement and surgeries to repair arthritic damage in her hands, Jo Cameron, 71, reported experiencing almost no pain. She coped with what little post-op discomfort she had with nothing more than two paracetamol tablets per day. Shocked at her seemingly superhuman pain tolerance (Cameron had hardly noticed her deteriorated hip-joint before having surgery, and surgeons described the procedure she had on her hands, after which she required little to no pharmaceutical aid, as “excruciating”), her doctors in Inverness sent her to pain specialists at University College London.
Once there, Cameron reported that she typically only notices having burned herself when she smells her singed flesh and that her wounds tend to heal very rapidly. She was also given tests to measure levels of anxiety and depression on which she scored 0/21 and 0/27, respectively.
UCL researchers examined Cameron’s DNA to try and find the cause of her pain tolerance. Their findings, published in the British Journal of Anesthesia, postulate that the source of her miraculous imperviousness to both pain and anxiety seems to lie in the way two different genetic mutations regulate her endocannabinoid system.
Both of Cameron’s mutations affect the activity of a gene called FAAH, which makes an enzyme that breaks down anandamide: an endocannabinoid that affects mood, pain sensation, memory and has effects similar to those found in more well-known, exogenous cannabinoids: THC and CBD. The more anandamide there is in the body, the stronger the cannabis-like effects of pain-relief, reduced anxiety and short-term memory impairment.
The anomalous sections of Cameron’s genome mean the breakdown of anandamide by FAAH barely happens at all. As such, she has twice the amount of anandamide in her system than the average person. According to the study, this explains why she doesn’t need opiates after surgery, why she’s experienced abnormally low stress responses immediately after a car accident, her Wolverine-like wound healing, and her tendency to forget words mid-sentence.
Cameron’s atypical genome could have a huge impact on the development of new treatments for pain and anxiety. James Cox, one of the study’s researchers, told The Guardian, “There’s an awful lot we can learn from her. Once we understand how the new gene works, we can think about gene therapies that mimic the effects we see in her. There are millions of people living in pain and we definitely need new analgesics. Patients like this can give us real insights into the pain system.”
This case appears to show that the “pain system” is indelibly linked to the endocannabinoid system, still a relatively understudied area of human physiology. But the plethora of medicinal uses now recognized in cannabinoids like THC and CBD means researchers are taking a greater interest in how the endocannabinoid system affects the body. A recent uptick in patents being filed for substances that act upon endocannabinoid receptors in the brain, and the follow-up research into Cameron’s case, indicate that these pathways are beginning to be explored in earnest to developing new, more effective treatments.