The news feeds this weekend featured a story about a grandmother in Scotland that does not feel pain or anxiety. It caught my eye at first because it was actually a news story about something good (what a relief from all the horrible news we usually have to wade through). It also caught my eye because pain and anxiety are two of the issues that many of my patients have. A few of the story titles also mentioned that they had found the gene responsible for this - as I also work with genomics, I was really intrigued.
After reading the articles, I dutifully dove into research mode, looked up the gene, then looked up the molecules that it affects, and then had a good long laugh....the irony of the name is awesome... hang with me and I'll explain. Those of you that loved folk music in the 70's might already know what sorts of things might have been "Faaar Out" back in the day.
If you didn't see the article here are some links:
Some of the articles mentioned that the gene in question was called FAAH. This is an acronym for the full name of the enzyme made by this gene: Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase. Enzymes are named for what they do. Because I can't resist being a geek, and because I used to teach medical terminology, I'm compelled to explain how you can tell the exact function from the name. The suffix "lase" at the end of the last word indicates that this enzyme breaks some compound apart, the "hydro" means it uses water to do that breaking. What it breaks is a fatty acid amide (a single fat chain that is bound to a tiny molecule with nitrogen - similar to an amino acid).
Next research thread: what is the target molecule for this enzyme and what does that molecule do?
As it turns out the target molecules are endocannabanoids (molecules made by our bodies that bind to what are now called cannabis receptors. The main molecules discussed is Anandamide and Oleamide.
Here's where the fun starts:
This gene makes an enzyme that breaks down the cannabis like molecules made inside our bodies (known as endocannabanoids).
The lovely Scottish woman that feels no pain and never has anxiety? She is missing part of that gene!
What that means is that she does not break down the cannabanoids (anandamide - the bliss molecule) that her body makes. Her natural levels of anandamide are MUCH higher than normal. So it is like she is moving through life with all the best aspects of marijuana flooding her body all the time.
Now, when part of a gene is missing, enough of it that it doesn't work, they designate that by writing -OUT after the gene acronym.
The end result is that missing the gene that breaks down your body's natural cannabanoids is called (wait for it...)
FAAAH - OUT..... Wow. Yes, it is....
For those of you who were John Denver fans in the 70's, you'll remember that he was well known for both his cannabis use and saying "Faaarrrr Out!" Little did we know he was naming the gene that was making him feel so good. Rocky Mountain High indeed.