"Neanderthal: Artist Conception" by Gary Todd / Public Domain

Neanderthal gene linked to increased pain sensitivity

Jul 27, 2020

By Ewen Callaway

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.

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