Many of us are part Neanderthal, with our genes carrying traces of past encounters between our early ancestors and the Stone Age hominins that populated Europe until around 40,000 years ago.
Now, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet think we can also attribute our pain thresholds to our Neanderthal DNA.
Researchers studied questionnaires on pain from more than 362,000 people in the United Kingdom.
The team then compared the responses with a person’s gene profile, and determined that people who had the Neanderthal variant of an ion channel experienced pain more often than those who did not. This channel passes ions, like sodium or potassium, across the cell membrane, creating a current and allowing a cell to fire an electrical impulse, or a “pain signal.”
The biggest factor for how much pain people report is their age. Carrying the Neanderthal variant of the ion channel, however, makes a person experience more pain — similar to if they were eight years older, researchers explained in a paper published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.
“The Neanderthal variant of the ion channel carries three amino acid differences to the common, ‘modern’ variant,” Hugo Zeberg, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Karolinska Institutet, said in a statement.
“While single amino acid substitutions do not affect the function of the ion channel, the full Neanderthal variant carrying three amino acid substitutions leads to heightened pain sensitivity in present-day people.”
There were other variants in ion channels not from Neanderthals, Zeberg told CNN, and not everyone with a low pain threshold could attribute it to a link to the hominins.
Eventually, the discovery could help develop drugs, with patients being offered precise treatment plans according to their genetic variants, the researchers said.
“We all know that some people metabolize drugs quickly, and others metabolize more slowly. In the future, I think, medical doctors will incorporate that kind of information some day, to the patient,” Zeberg told CNN.