Scratching the idea that itch is merely a less-intense form of pain, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has created what it believes is the first multidisciplinary program designed solely to understand and treat itch.
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The concept of creating the Center for the Study of Itch came out of research led by Zhou-Feng Chen, co-director of the new center and professor of anesthesiology, psychiatry and developmental biology. The research suggests that itch is not pain, as originally believed, and travels on its own neural pathways. “In fact, chronic itch is a disease of the nervous system manifested in the skin, but we understand very little about basic mechanisms and effective treatments,” Chen says in a news release. Chen will direct the center's itch research and behavioral core, while the clinical side of the itch research effort will be directed by Dr. Lynn Cornelius, who also is chief of dermatology in the department of medicine. Researchers will collect biopsies of skin from patients who itch to create a clinical database and bio bank, and clinical trials will be conducted of itch therapies and treatments. Using imaging, the researchers hope to “identify specific areas of the brain that are active when a person perceives the sensation of itch,” and track changes as treatments are administered, Cornelius says in the release. “Itch is not just a reflex but a unique sensation,” she says.
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