Johns Hopkins researchers have discovered a special type of nerve cell that is responsible for itchy skin — a finding that could soon lead to new treatments for the irritating sensation.
The discovery, based on research involving laboratory mice, involves a type of sensory nerve cell whose endings relay the sensation of itchy skin to other nerves in the spinal cord. The signals are distinctly different from those that signal pain and other discomfort, according to the researchers, who detailed their findings in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
"Now that we have disentangled these itchy sensations from painful ones, we should be able to design drugs that target itch-specific nerve cells to combat chronic itchiness," said Xinzhong Dong, associate professor of neuroscience at the Institute of Basic Biomedical Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Dong added that the discovery may not only lead to new treatments for itchy skin, but also help ease the discomfort of patients who take drugs that cause irritation.
"We hope that this will not only provide relief, but also increase people's faithfulness to their drug plans, particularly for deadly diseases like malaria and cancer," Dong said, noting: “We even see patients stop taking life-saving medications because they cause such horrible itchiness all over."
The researchers said they hope to develop ways to block the nerve cell signals that indicate itchy sensations.