Mind & Body

This Italian Family Can't Feel Pain, and Researchers Are Finding Out Why

Have you ever stubbed your toe something awful and said to yourself, "I wish I couldn't feel pain?" Well, be careful — you might find yourself Freaky Friday'd with a member of the Marsili family, and then you'll find out exactly how much of a blessing the sensation of pain can be.

The Marsili Family

No Pain, No Gain

Letizia Marsili once fractured her shoulder while skiing, but didn't notice until a day later when her fingers started tingling. Another time, she broke her elbow playing tennis without even realizing it. She's not the only one. One of her sons has extremely calcified ankles from all of his (unwitting) football injuries, and the other once rode his bike for nine miles after breaking his elbow. Her sister is prone to mouth injuries because she doesn't realize it when her food is too hot, and her mother also has a reputation for absentmindedly burning herself.

They call it "Marsili syndrome," and if you're going to have one syndrome named after your family, it seems like a pretty enviable one. But you can also pretty easily see the downside — just look at the list of injuries we just mentioned. But after several years of study, researchers have been able to identify a genetic reason for their condition, and it might shine a light on pain management strategies in the future.

The Bright Side of Hurting

As with so many things, the answer to the mystery lies in the family's genes. When researchers tested the Marsili family, they found a consistent mutation in the gene known as ZFHX2. They then bred a population of mice with the same mutation and found that those rodents had the same insensitivity to heat that so many of the Marsilis experience. That's especially interesting because while other types of congenital insensitivity to pain have been observed and triggered in mice, this is the first time researchers have replicated that particular aspect.

Now, it's not as if doctors can just fix up your genes real quick to make sure you don't feel any pain while you recover. But the discovery of this mechanism could still be a major boon to the medical field. Speaking with The Independent, study author Dr. Abdella Habib said their findings could open new avenues of treatments. "We hope that our findings and the subsequent research projects will help find better treatments for the millions of people worldwide who experience chronic pain and don't get relief from existing drugs," he said.

Written by Reuben Westmaas January 16, 2018