This week in science: Pain’s relation to itch, sex equality in research and white-nose syndrome

    Why do we itch? New research says it has to do with the chemical messenger: seratonin. (Shutterstock

    Why do we itch? New research says it has to do with the chemical messenger: seratonin. (Shutterstock

    Everyone itches, and when we scratch, the itch always seems to come back even stronger. But why? 

    Dr. Bethany Brookshire, a science writer and regular Pulse contributor, says that when you scratch an itch, you actually create pain, and itch and pain share similar nerve pathways in the spinal cord.

    “To kill the pain, your body produces seratonin, but the seratonin comes out near the pain neurons and hits also the itch neurons,” she says. “When it hits the itch neurons, it activates them to itch more.”

    So the seratonin kills the pain, but it also increases the itch.

    This information, recently released by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, could help us find ways to combat severe itch.

    “There’s a specific receptor that receives seratonin on the itch neurons, Seratonin 1A,” says Brookshire. “If we could target that receptor with drugs, we could actually help people who suffer from chronic itch.

    Sex equality in scientific studies

    A new rolling policy coming out of the National Institutes of Health aims to promote sex parity in scientific research.

    “Much of that research has been done primarily on one sex or the other,” says Brookshire. “A lot of neuroscience research is primarily done in male animals and a lot of immunological research tends to be done on female animals.”

    There’s various reasons why researchers have chosen one sex over the other for studies. For example, many people think that when you’re studying females in neuroscience, it can be difficult to maintain consistency through monthly menstrual cycles. But there are challenges with only focusing on one sex in preclinical studies.

    “When things translate up to clinical trials for a new drug, for example, we don’t necessarily always know how it’s going to effect both sexes because it’s only investigated in males or only in females.

    Right now, the first goal is to get all scientists to declare what sex of animal they used for their study. But there are thoughts that eventually, the NIH will require all experiments to be conducted in both males and females. Many people in the science community welcome the policy, but some are concerned that if you’re going to look at both sexes, you’re going to need to double the number of animals, which could mean doubling the cost.

    “A lot of people are wondering, who’s going to pay for that?” says Brookshire. “These animals are expensive, they require a lot of care. So, how are grants going to be funded to actually pay for those experiments?

    White-nose syndrome in bats

    White-nose syndrome is a deadly, fungal disease found in bats.

    New research out this week could help treat bats suffering from the disease.  The study looked at the seasonality of the disease and analyzed patterns of bats throughout the year. It turns out, animals end up getting reinfected in the winter, when they’re hibernating.

    “When they hibernate, bats actually have a lower body temperature than they do when they’re active,” says Brookshire. “The lower body temperature is really nice and comfortable for the fungus, so the fungus has a chance to spread and kill more bats during the winter, when the animals are hibernating.

    The new research could lead for a push to treat these bats when they’re hibernating in the winter and could eventually play a role in helping to prevent the spread of the disease. 

    Bethany Brookshire is a science writer and educator for Science News and Society for Science and the Public, and writes for Eureka lab. She blogs under the name “Scicurious” and has a knack for finding the strangest science experiments and studies under the sun.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal