A Pain-Free Life

March 30, 2011

Brit Trogen

"Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."


A quote from one of my all time favorite movies (<3 Westley!) may not apply to everyone. Particularly, anyone with the rare genetic mutation that has the ability to render their lives completely pain-free; an ion channel in sensory cells Nav1.7 that's responsible for sending pain signals to the brain.

As incredible as it sounds, people who carry the Nav1.7 mutation are incapable of feeling pain. They can walk over burning coals, insert knives in their arms, and give birth without discomfort. And while a pain-free life may strike some people as slightly creepy, it opens the door to some pretty interesting scientific possibilities.

In the animal kingdom, mice that lack the Nav1.7 gene have successfully been created in the lab. And since they show decreased sensitivity for heat and pressure, just like humans, they've raised an interesting possibility for engineering other animals in the same way. Factory farms animals, for example. Should we genetically eliminate the ability of farm animals to perceive their own suffering?

One problem with Nav1.7 individuals is their tendency to accidentally injure themselves due to their inability to feel any pain, but another strain of mice with mutations in their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) could remedy this issue. These animals can still sense pain, but don't interpret it as an unpleasant sensation.

But of course, while this all sounds fine in theory, it brings to mind a character from a Douglas Adams' book: the cow who's been engineered to want to be eaten. Somehow, I'm sure it would make people uncomfortable.


Chris Buzon on March 30, 2011
Adams touched on a very interesting point there (amongst the hundreds of others in the series)

Is it the suffering that makes us feel bad for eating animals? Is it the death? Since living things generally eat other living things (gross over-simplification, obviously) - death is part of what it takes to survive. Even if animals wanted to be eaten, I suspect we would still have a vegetarian segment of the population.

I am not a vegetarian, but I try to eat very little meat. There are health reason, and there are moral reasons, but the biggest one in my mind are the environmental reasons. Even if we could remove some of the moral implications of being a meat eater, it's harder to argue away the damage eating meat has on the planet.

If we could grow space cows, we'd be in good shape.

Brit Trogen on March 30, 2011
Great points, Chris. Perhaps more realistic than space cows is in vitro meat. What is fascinating about all of these "ethical" options is that they seem to repulse many people.

I think the most interesting question this always raises is the one you touched on briefly: what is "natural?" Is it natural for the prey animal to feel pain when it is killed? For an animal to fight for its life? We would say yes. But can we claim that factory farms are natural? Somewhere I think the lines have become very blurred.
Chris Buzon on April 06, 2011
Factory Farms are seriously %&*@ed up places (I've been to one). I doubt most people would get past the first room without gagging, or worse. Death has a smell...and I think people know it instinctively

There used to be a show on the cooking channel called The River Cottage Treatment, it could be running still...I am not sure. It took people that were out of touch with what food actually was, and where it came from. To them food was found in supermarkets, and they were not aware of how much effort it took to actually prepare food.

They would spend a week on the host's farm - they would plant and tend gardens, take care of animals, and make every meal from things they were growing. They would harvest, prepare, and cook anything they wanted to eat. For meat, they were required to go to the slaughterhouse and come to terms with what their steak *was*.

In every episode I watched there were always several people that would become vegetarians at the end of the week. I think the association between meat and death was simply not there before the saw it first hand.

In a perfect(ish) world - everyone who wanted to eat meat would have to see the process through personally, at least once. I don't think it's cruel to subject people to it - I think it's fair. Maybe even a little bit closer to what is 'natural' least for our species.

Michelle Domsky on April 08, 2011
I saw a documentary about a little girl around 2-3 years old who had this gene. She kept poking at her eyes with objects and freaking out her parents. She was also a very stubborn little girl, so she wouldn't stop. They had to make her wear goggles so she wouldn't blind herself.



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