Chili peppers heat up neuroscience research

A bite of a jalepeño or habanero pepper can sometimes prove too hot to handle. These peppers may represent frantic gulps of water and burning tears to some people, but to a neuroscience lab at Texas A&M, they can offer key insight into the neurological processes associated with pain.

Led by psychology professor Mary Meagher, a team of undergraduate and graduate students are examining the way people process pain, paying close attention to both the perception and physiological responses of pain. To better understand these concepts, the lab applies capsaicin, or chili pepper extract, on the forearms of participants to induce pain.

Capsaicin provides a way to study chronic pain without causing lasting injuries or any tissue damage.

“In order to understand the mechanisms that influence pain in healthy and pathological pain situations, we need to have laboratory studies,” Meagher said. “The reason we use the capsaicin model is it is a model that mimics many of the features and mechanisms that are engaged when somebody has what’s called chronic or pathological pain, but luckily it’s just short term.”

With this study, Meagher’s lab intends to provide a greater understanding of the neurological processes associated with pain.

“If you can understand the mechanisms, both psychological and physiological, that are involved in determining how the ascending pain transmission gets amplified or what factors contribute to its inhibition, then we’ll understand various targets that we can go after pharmacologically and psychologically,” Meagher said.

Sophomore health major, Brittany Phelps, participated in one of the capsaicin experiments. Phelps said she was asked if she was allergic to chili peppers or felt pain easily.

“Both of those questions have the answer of ‘No,’ but I was like, ‘Why do you need to know if I feel pain easily, and what are you going to be doing with chili peppers?’” Phelps said. “It was a little nerve-wracking at first, because I really didn’t know what to expect, but it really wasn’t too bad. I felt a tingling sensation, but it wasn’t too painful.”

Senior university studies major, Carli Domenico, led one of these capsaicin studies and said the research experience provided her with unique rewards as an undergraduate student.

“Undergraduate research is crucial across all fields of study because it provides for academic and personal development that nothing else on campus can offer,” Domenico said. “It teaches you to think and read critically and it exposes you to many more backgrounds than you would ever expect.”


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