The Loh Down On Science

Scientists discover why sunburns hurt

Beach bathing?  FUN!  Sunburns?  Painful!  What's a sun lover to do?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Neurologists at Duke University may have a solution.  They’ve pinpointed the molecule behind sunburn pain.  It's called TRPV4, and it’s a protein in skin cells.  TRPV4 is an “ion channel,” or gateway molecule.  These let crucial substances in and out of cells.  Like calcium and sodium. 

But an influx of calcium can also activate another molecule, known to cause pain.  This happens after overexposure to harmful “ultraviolet-B,” or UVB, radiation from the sun.

The researchers wondered:  Could shutting down TRPV4 stop pain?

To find out, they genetically engineered mice to lack the molecule.  When they exposed the mice’s feet to UVB rays?  The mice showed minimal sunburn sensitivity compared to normal mice.

Next, the researchers rubbed a substance that blocks TRPV4 on normal mice’s feet.

Result?  After UVB exposure, normal mice still got sunburned.   But they weren't sensitive to touch!  No pain!

So sunscreens might some day include TRPV4 blockers.

The sting of a thong, however?  There’s no cure for that.

***** For more 90-SECOND SCIENCE FACTS, click here.*****

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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