Sorer than humanly possible: People with Neanderthal genes are more likely to be


Some Neanderthals felt more pain from the prick of a spear than any similar pain from fire, cold or blunt force – and scientists now know the gene they’ve passed on.

In recent months, geneticists have linked a variety of modern conditions – from vulnerability to Covid to nose size – to humanity’s DNA heritage from Neanderthals. 

Three versions of this newly understood ‘pain gene,’ SCN9A, can make people who have it more likely to feel hurt by sharp prodding, the researchers found, with the gene showing up at a ‘high frequency’ among those with Native American ancestry.

The group studied genetic data from over 5,900 individuals across Latin America, including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.

Three versions of gene SCN9A can make people who have it more likely to feel hurt by sharp prodding, researchers found, with the gene showing up at a 'high frequency' among those with Native American ancestry. The gene traces back to prehistoric Neanderthals (above)

Three versions of gene SCN9A can make people who have it more likely to feel hurt by sharp prodding, researchers found, with the gene showing up at a ‘high frequency’ among those with Native American ancestry. The gene traces back to prehistoric Neanderthals (above)

The three versions of the SCN9A gene - named D1908G, V991L and M932L - were found with much higher frequency among those with Native American ancestry (orange-yellow bars in the graph above), much more than either European (blue) or African (red) ancestry, per the study

The three versions of the SCN9A gene – named D1908G, V991L and M932L – were found with much higher frequency among those with Native American ancestry (orange-yellow bars in the graph above), much more than either European (blue) or African (red) ancestry, per the study 

The Peruvians, whose genetic make-up typically had the highest proportion of Indigenous blood (a ‘mean Native American ancestry’ of 66.1 percent), were the most likely to have any of the three SCN9A variants. 

While more research is needed, the scientists suspect that these SCN9A genes might have been passed along in an evolutionary trade-off. 

Sharp pokes aside, the scientists suspect that the gene ‘could have somehow helped humans to cope with the cold.’

About 30 percent of the study’s thousands of Latin American participants had the most common of the SCN9A gene variants, D1908G. 

And approximately 13 percent had the other two versions of the gene, named V991L and M932L respectively.

The study participants from Peru had the highest likelihood of carrying the D1908G variant at 42.3 percent, with participants from Mexico having the highest likelihood for the V991L and M932L variants at nearly 23 percent each. 

On the opposite end, the Brazilian test participants had the lowest proportion of Native American ancestry, at just 9 percent, which appears to have translated to the lowest proportion of the three ‘pain gene’ variants.

‘In 2020,’ according to the study’s lead author, French geneticist Pierre Faux, ‘another group of researchers studied people of European ancestry and linked these Neanderthal gene variants to increased pain sensitivity.’ 

‘We extend these findings by studying Latin Americans and showing that these Neanderthal genetic variants are much more common in people with Native American ancestry,’ Faux told Live Science.

‘We also show the type of pain these variants affect,’ Faux added, ‘which wasn’t known before.’

All three variations of the SCN9A gene help create a protein in the body that delivers sodium (salt) into cells, thus helping deliver pain signals from pain-detecting nerves

All three variations of the SCN9A gene help create a protein in the body that delivers sodium (salt) into cells, thus helping deliver pain signals from pain-detecting nerves

On average, participants had 46 percent Native American ancestry, 49.6 percent European ancestry and 4.4 percent African ancestry. But these proportions varied significantly, both by individuals and nationality. Peru and Mexico maintained the most indigenous genetic heritage

On average, participants had 46 percent Native American ancestry, 49.6 percent European ancestry and 4.4 percent African ancestry. But these proportions varied significantly, both by individuals and nationality. Peru and Mexico maintained the most indigenous genetic heritage

All three variations of the SCN9A gene help create a protein in the body that delivers sodium (salt) into cells, thus helping deliver pain signals from pain-detecting nerves.

To assess responses to these genetic responses to pain, 1,623 Colombian participants volunteered for ‘Quantitative Sensory Testing,’ according to the new report, published Tuesday in the journal Communications Biology.

Part of each these participants’ skin surfaces was made more sensitive using mustard oil before being tested for ‘heat pain, mechanical pain and pressure pain.’

They were then tested with prodding from measured filaments – and the participants with any of the three Neanderthal gene variants typically could not hold out long enough for the filament to prod very far.

‘When we tested the participants’ pain threshold by applying pressure, heat or cold,’ Faux said, ‘the gene variants did not affect pain sensitivity, so the Neanderthal variants only affected their response to pinprick pressure.’

Several mail order DNA services, including both 23andMe and tellmeGen, do offer testing for those who are curious about their own Neanderthal heritage, but less interested in undergoing pinprick pain tests themselves.

‘We know that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred something like 50,000 to 70,000 years ago,’ Faux said, ‘and that modern humans first crossed over from Eurasia into the Americas by 15- to 20,000 years ago.’

Faux, a senior researcher at the French National institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment, speculates that this prehistoric intermingling occurred before these nomadic groups migrated across the Bering Strait from Asia to Alaska.

‘The high frequency of the Neanderthal variants in people with Native American ancestry,’ he said, ‘could potentially be explained by a scenario where the Neanderthals carrying these variants happened to breed with the modern humans who eventually migrated into the Americas.’

‘The modern humans who first reached North America would have had to bear harsh and cold conditions,’ Faux explained.

‘So it could be that these variants have other effects beyond pain – for example, they could have somehow helped humans to cope with the cold.’



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