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Scientists Discover Cluster of ‘Mini Brains’ Connected to Pain

Apr 11, 2017 10:35 AM EDT
'Mini brains' in the peripheral nervous system let the nerve cells exchange information, a process previously believed to be limited to the central nervous system.
(Photo : Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Scientists used to believe only the central nervous system could interpret sensations like pain or heat. But a new research from the Hebei Medical University in China and the University of Leeds reveals that there are "mini brains" throughout the peripheral nervous system that can analyze sensory information.

According to a report from Science Daily, researchers actually conducted experiments on rats and mice, but the data they gathered could be groundbreaking in human anatomy and pain medication.

The peripheral nervous system -- which runs throughout the body as opposed to the central nervous system consisting of the brain and spinal cord -- used to be believed as a mere wiring system, carrying information to and from the brain and the body.

The researchers suggested that the system is far more complex by finding a new role of the ganglia or collection of nodules. Previously thought of as an energy source for information traveling through the nervous system, the ganglia were found to contain nerve cells that can exchange information among each other, which is a process scientists used to think was exclusive to the central nervous system. The researchers now believe the ganglia act as "mini brains" that can modify the information being sent to the brain and spinal cord.

These "mini brains" have great potential to revolutionize the way medical experts develop painkillers. Instead of drugs targeting the central nervous system and causing side effects like drowsiness and addiction, new medicine can be targeted at the peripheral nervous system with higher safe dosages and higher efficacy.

"Further research is needed to understand exactly how it operates, but we have no reason to believe that the same nerve arrangements would not exist in humans," neuroscientist Nikita Gamper told Science Daily. "When our research team looked more closely at the peripheral system, we found the machinery for neuronal communication did exist in the peripheral nervous system's structure. It is as if each sensory nerve has its own 'mini-brain', which to an extent, can interpret incoming information."

The team's findings are published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

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