From Prince Harry and Emma Stone to Julianne Moore and Amy Adams, more than a few celebrities are known for their gorgeous red hair. Of course, having the rarest hair pigment comes with its drawbacks, like being highly susceptible to sunburns. Interestingly, the same processes that make people with red hair so quick to burn also give them a higher pain threshold than blondes and brunettes.
Research from Massachusetts General Hospital published in Science Advances looked at how different hair pigments were connected to varying levels of pain sensitivity. Using animal trials, scientists discovered that all pigment cells have what’s called a melanocortin 1 receptor, which determines the color of that cell and helps it change color due to environmental factors — such as how we tan when we’re out in the sun. These receptors also play an additional role of secreting proopiomelanocortin (POMC), a compound in the body that sensitizes us to physical pain.
These researchers discovered that people and animals with red hair actually have an inactive melanocortin 1 receptor and therefore don’t produce POMC at the same levels as those with other hair pigments. That not only explains why their skin has trouble tanning — since the receptor that makes that happen isn’t turned “on” — but it also illustrates why redheads have a higher pain threshold since they’re missing valuable compounds that signal pain. Interesting, right?
Scientists hope that their latest findings will enable them to create better pain management treatments based on different people’s characteristics, such as hair pigment and skin color. “Our ongoing work is focused on elucidating how additional skin-derived signals regulate pain and opioid signaling,” explains co-lead author Lajos V. Kemény, MD, PhD. “Understanding these pathways in depth may lead to the identification of novel pain-modulating strategies.”
For all the redheads out there, think of this as having a secret superpower to be embraced and flaunted!