Sensory problems are common to autism spectrum disorders. Some individuals with autism may injure themselves repetitively – for example, pulling their hair or banging their heads – because they’re less sensitive to pain than other people.
New research points to a potential mechanism underlying pain insensitivity in autism. The study, conducted by two teams at Duke University and appearing online in the journal Neuron, is the first to connect autism to one of the most well-studied pain molecules, called TRPV1 (transient receptor potential ion channel subtype V1), which is a receptor for the main spicy component of chili peppers.
“Not enough research has been done on the mechanisms driving sensory problems in autism, but it’s important because sensory processing probably affects to some degree how the brain develops,” said co-author Yong-hui Jiang, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics and neurobiology at Duke. Jiang collaborated with Ru-Rong Ji, Ph.D., professor of anesthesiology and neurobiology and chief of pain research in Duke University School of Medicine’s Department of Anesthesiology.