Redheads. They are not like everyone else in many ways. Genetically speaking, they are mutants. They are more sensitive to hot and cold — and they are a whole lot harder to numb up.
Past research has shown that, on average, redhead men and women require 20% more anesthesia than their non-redheaded peers.
A recent study from the Journal of the American Dentistry Association also shows that people with copper locks tend to be more afraid of going to the dentist and are twice as likely to avoid dental care — presumably because their need for more numbing leads to unexpected complications in the dentist’s chair.
So what’s the deal? Why do redheads need more anesthesia?
In the late 1990s, scientists discovered that red hair — and a slew of traits that usually accompany it — are the result of a mutation of the Melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) gene. For those with brown, black or blond hair, this gene produces a protein called melanin, which colors the hair and allows the skin to tan.
In redheads, the mutated MC1R gene produces pheomelanin instead, a protein that accounts for the flaming hair, pale skin, and freckles that we associate with redheads.
As redhead research progressed, researchers found that MC1R mutations also affected the perception of pain and the effectiveness of certain drugs meant to block or numb the sensation of pain.
Why is this important for science?
Experts say the redhead gene research proves that our genes can preordain how drugs will react in our bodies. The study of this interaction between genes and drugs, called pharmacogenomics, is the cutting edge of drug research and may one day lead to safer, person-specific prescriptions.
“It will be possible to tailor their dosage regiment to their genetic profile, improving drug efficacy while reducing adverse effects,” says Dr. Elliot Krane, director of Pain Management Services at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif.. “All this is probably less than a decade from reality.”
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