Neanderthals carried three mutations in the gene encoding the Nav1.7 protein, responsible for transmitting painful sensations to the brain and the spinal cord.
An international team of researchers found that Neanderthals had a genetic predisposition to increased pain sensitivity – and people who inherited these genes are also more sensitive. The study was published last week in the journal Current Biology.
“It’s a first example, to me, about how we begin to perhaps get an idea about Neanderthal physiology by using present-day people as transgenic models,” said Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Germany, who led the study, together with Hugo Zeberg at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.
The findings show that Neanderthals carried three mutations in the gene encoding the Nav1.7 protein, responsible for transmitting painful sensations to the spinal cord and brain.
The study also shows that, in a British sample, those who inherited the genetic mutation from Neanderthals tend to experience more pain than other people.
To find out how these genetic changes may have affected Neanderthal nerves, Zeberg used a version of Nav1.7 in frog eggs and human kidney cells. The protein was more active in cells with all three mutations than in those without any of them.
When looking for humans with the Neanderthal version of the gene, the researchers found that about 0.4% of people in the UK Biobank genetic database – which has data from 500,000 British people – have a copy of the mutated gene and are 7% more likely to feel pain than other people. No person had two copies of the gene, as Neanderthals did.
“This is beautiful work, because it shows how aspects of Neanderthal physiology can be reconstructed by studying modern humans,” said Cedric Boeckx, a neuroscientist at the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona, Spain.