Can a Szechuan pepper cure pain?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

This is a picture of Szechuan peppers, including their stems and seeds.

I can’t tolerate spicy food whatsoever. The second I get even a little bit of pepper in my mouth, my face glows red, tears stream out of my eyes, and I’m left frantically searching for a glass of water! I certainly wouldn’t be able to handle some of the amazing cuisines that go heavy on the spices, especially Asian dishes that incorporate the infamous Szechuan pepper. Heck, even those people brave enough to try the spice report feeling a strong burning sensation on their lips.

According to research from the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, a chemical in the pepper that activates this burn mimics a physical touch and can be used to cure pain!

Previous research on this Asian pepper found that the active chemical in the spice – sanshool – stimulates areas in animal brains related to a light touch. However, University College London Institute researchers wanted to study humans, so they rounded up people bold enough to eat a Szechuan pepper (I would have never volunteered to be a subject!). Naturally, the participants reported a “tingly” feeling, followed by a “burning” sensation on their lips. Next, the subjects had to place their finger on a vibrating machine and guess the speed that felt most similar to the burning on their lips. Most participants reported that 50 “hertz” – cycles per second – reminded them of the burn.

Here’s where it gets really cool. When the neuroscientists placed the vibrating machine on the subjects’ lips, it felt like they were on fire! “The pepper is sending the same information to the brain as having a buzzer on your lips,” said the study’s lead author, Nobuhiro Hagura. In what I would consider torture, the researchers kept the machine there until the participants didn’t notice the pain anymore!

Even though it seems like torture, the scientists were actually studying ways to help individuals who suffer from chronic pain. “Tingling sensations are part of many chronic pain conditions, but remain poorly understood,” said Hagura. “We hope that [our work] could help to clarify the brain processes underlying these sensations.”

Featured image courtesy of Didier Descouens on Wikipedia. Image of pepper stems and seeds courtesy of Ragesoss on Wikimedia.