08 February 2021

Researchers have found evidence that an improved diet and greater social interaction can help reduce pain in mice with sickle cell disease.

Sickle cell disease is often associated with significant chronic pain, for which opioid medicines are often prescribed. However, opioids can be addictive, and overdoses are a leading cause of death in the US. Dr Kalpna Gupta from the University of California Irvine, USA, and her team have been looking for alternatives to opioids to benefit people with this condition.

Their latest study on mice with a form of sickle cell disease was published in the journal Scientific Reports last week.

Male mice were housed with female companions and a special diet enriched with certain amino acids and fatty acids. The mice showed higher levels of serotonin in the brain and reduced pain, measured by their tendency to lift their paws in response to stimuli and to exert force, compared to mice housed alone and/or on a normal diet.

The researchers then gave mice the antidepressant duloxetine, which increases serotonin in the brain, and found that this also decreased pain, according to the same tests. In doing so, they confirmed that the effect was mediated by serotonin.

They write: “Mechanical and thermal hyperalgesia were reduced significantly with enriched diet and/or companionship. Upon withdrawal of both conditions, analgesic effects observed prior to withdrawal were diminished.

“Serotonin was found to be increased in the spinal cords of mice provided both treatments.”

They add: “Improved diet and companionship enhanced the efficacy of a sub-optimal dose of morphine for analgesia in sickle mice. These findings offer the potential to reduce opioid use without pharmacological interventions to develop effective pain management strategies.”

Dr Keith Hoots, from the US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute which funded the work, said: “Finding safe and effective alternatives to opioids is a research priority, especially for patients with sickle cell disease. It's encouraging to see a dose-response relationship to nutrients and companions in mice, which guides future research about the role foods and friends may have in helping humans manage chronic pain.”


Tran H, Sagi V, Jarrett S, Palzer EF, Badgaiyan RD, Gupta K. (2021) “Diet and companionship modulate pain via a serotonergic mechanism.” Scientific Reports, doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-81654-1


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