Svante Pääbo: Neanderthal gene linked to increased pain sensitivity

August 3, 2020

NOMIS Awardee Svante Pääbo and colleagues have discovered that people who have inherited nerve-altering mutations from the ancient hominins tend to experience more pain. The findings were published in Current Biology on July 23, 2020, and were reported in the following article in Nature.

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal. (Photo: S. Entressangle/E. Daynes/SPL)

Neanderthal gene linked to increased pain sensitivity

Neanderthals lived hard lives. The ice-age hunter-gatherers eked out a living across western Eurasia, hunting mammoths, bison and other dangerous animals.

Despite their rough and tumble existence, Neanderthals had a biological predisposition to a heightened sense of pain, finds a first-of-its kind genome study published in Current Biology on 23 July1. Evolutionary geneticists found that the ancient human relatives carried three mutations in a gene encoding the protein NaV1.7, which conveys painful sensations to the spinal cord and brain. They also showed that in a sample of British people, those who had inherited the Neanderthal version of NaV1.7 tend to experience more pain than others.

“It’s a first example, to me, about how we begin to perhaps get an idea about Neanderthal physiology by using present-day people as transgenic models,” says Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who led the work with Hugo Zeberg at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Pain-sensing protein

Researchers have access to only a few Neanderthal genomes, and most of those have been sequenced at a low resolution. This has made it hard to identify mutations that evolved after their lineage split from that of humans some 500,000–750,000 years ago. But in the past few years, Pääbo and his team have generated three high-quality Neanderthal genomes from DNA found in caves in Croatia and Russia. This allows them to confidently identify mutations that were probably common in Neanderthals, yet very rare in humans.

Continue reading the Nature article

Read the Current Biology publication: A Neanderthal Sodium Channel Increases Pain Sensitivity in Present-Day Humans