Using advanced technology, researchers at Duke University were able to take subatomic images of a key receptor responsible for how our body responds to pain. These images explain the inner-workings of our skin’s pain receptors and could be a step forward in developing new treatments for chronic pain .

Our bodies’ sophisticated response to pain stimuli is an important survival mechanism that keeps us away from potential harm. When we touch a surface that is too hot, receptors in our skin send a message to our brain, urging us to let go as quickly as possible. This message is interpreted as pain. Thanks to a recent study published online January 18 in the journal Nature Structural Biology and Molecular Biology , researchers now have a better understanding of how our bodies know when to feel pain or not.

TRPV2 (Transient Receptor Potential Vanilloid) is a protein linked to pain and heat perception. It can be found on cell surface membranes and works almost like a valve, opening to allow for the release of pain signals to the nervous system in the presence of danger, such as a hot or poisonous surface, and closing again once this danger has passed. By using cryo-electron microscopy, an advanced technique that can photograph images at near-atomic resolutions, on lab rabbits, the team was able to take images of TRPV2 in both the “open” and “closed” state.

"These receptors are gaining particular attention because they are so critical to how we sense and respond to our environment," said senior study author Seok-Yong Lee, an assistant professor of biochemistry at Duke University School of Medicine, in a statement .

Along with viewing TRPV2 in both its open and closed state, the researchers also took an image of it in a third “desensitized” state. It’s this third state that is of particular interest, as it may be “a necessary component for developing new treatments for a variety of conditions involving sensation," Lee explained.

According to the National Institutes of Health , chronic pain refers to any type of pain that lasts for longer than 12 weeks. Medications, acupuncture, local electrical stimulation, and brain stimulation, as well as surgery, are some treatments for chronic pain but these treatments are not guaranteed to work on every patient.

"If we can obtain these different conformations, we can generate a series of snapshots — perhaps even an entire movie — that will allow us to understand how this machine operates," Lee said.

Source: L Zubcevic, MA Herzik Jr, BC Chung, Z Liu, GC Lander, SY Lee.Cryo-electron microscopy structure of the TRPV2 ion channel. Structural Biology and Molecular Biology. 2016