Spicy food—you either love it or hate it. Whichever group you fall into, though, there’s a good chance you’ve never thought about how intriguing a natural deception it really is. When we eat spicy food we may experience a variety of sensations (depending on the specific cuisine) ranging from tingling to numbness to painful burning. Yet, a short time later the feeling disappears, leaving no redness, scarring, or irritation behind, indicating that the previous unpleasantness we experienced was—literally—all in our heads.
The substance responsible for the burning sensation one may experience when eating chili or buffalo wings is known as capsaicin. It was identified in the 1800s, and a whole family of similar molecules, called capsaicinoids, were discovered in chili peppers in the 1960s. While capsaicin is an irritant to mammals, it has analgesic properties in birds when they consume it. Chili pepper seeds are broken down in the digestive tracts of mammals. Birds, however, pass the seeds intact. Thus, the capsaicin deters mammalian feeders and makes the peppers more palatable to birds, allowing the seeds to be dispersed efficiently through bird migrations. Hence, the burning feeling caused by capsaicin is probably a mechanism that evolved to promote seed dispersal.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s, however, that scientists began to unravel the mystery behind the phantom sensation caused by capsaicin. To understand it necessitates a little knowledge about neurophysiology. So, I’ll try to summarize half a semester of neurophys in a few short paragraphs.
Neurons (and some other types of cells) communicate with one another through pulses of voltage called action potentials. A neuron maintains a certain regular voltage, known as its resting potential. The membrane of a neuron is broken up by apertures called ion channels. When they are open, certain charged particles can pass in or out of them (which particles and to what extent depends on the type of channel and a number of other factors).
Neurons are influenced primarily by four types of ions: K+ and organic anions (A-) that are concentrated inside the cell, and Na+ and Cl-, which are for the most part outside of the cell. The resting potential across a neuron’s membrane is usually about –70mV. This potential is maintained by a sensitive pump that constantly pulls K+ in, while sending Na+ out.
When a neuron is excited, voltage-dependent ion channels quickly open that allow floods of Na+ into the cell. This causes a change in the voltage of the neuron, referred to as depolarization. The rapid depolarization is the trigger that sends a wave of voltage, the action potential, down the axon of the neuron. If it is strong enough, it will reach the end of the neuron, causing the release of neurotransmitter, which binds to surrounding neurons to open their ion channels, resulting in depolarization, and so on.
So, back to buffalo wings, chili, and capsaicin. Capsaicin is a ligand that binds to a specific receptor, the TRP vanilloid receptor subtype 1 (TRPV1). This receptor can also be stimulated with actual heat and physical injury. When it is activated, it opens ion channels that depolarize nerve cells by allowing an influx of Na+. This produces action potentials that travel to the brain and produce what is, in this case, a false sense of pain.
If you’ve ever eaten Szechuan peppers, you’ll know that the feeling they evoke is different than that of chili peppers. Szechuan peppers cause a tingling, sometimes numbing, feeling. Instead of capsaicin, their active ingredient is hydroxy-alhpa-sanshool (sanshool). How sanshool acts to produce its numbing effect was somewhat of an enigma until a study published last week in Nature Neuroscience offered an explanation.
According to the authors of the study, sanshool acts on a different group of neurons than capsaicin. Capsaicin affects small-diameter sensory neurons that express proinflammatory peptides (which are responsible for the pain), but sanshool acts on large diameter neurons usually associated with proprioception and detection of touch or vibration.
Sanshool was thought to have an effect by opening Na+ channels, in a manner similar to capsaicin. The Nature study, however, found that sanshool actually inhibits K+ channels. The result is still an action potential, but through a different mechanism.
You may be thinking this is a lot of research money being wasted to figure out why food is spicy. But understanding these subtleties of the sensory system is important in that it brings us closer to an overall comprehension of how our senses work. Also, both capsaicin and sanshool have applications as analgesics (ironically capsaicin can reduce pain when applied topically, possibly because it floods the sensory neurons to the point where they go numb).
A side note: A couple of years ago a Harvard researcher, Clifford Woolf, made a novel suggestion. Since the most highly abused prescription drugs like OxyContin and Ritalin generally lead to addiction when users begin snorting them, why not mix capsaicin in with them? This, Dr. Woolf asserted, would not affect the oral digestion of the pills but would make snorting them like “snorting an extract of 50 jalapeno peppers”.
One thing that has always amazed me about pills like these is how amenable they are to being crushed up and snorted. Elizabeth Wurtzel, in her book about Ritalin addiction More, Now Again: A Memoir of Addiction implies that pharmaceutical companies purposely make their drugs like this in order to increase demand and black market consumption. I don’t know if I agree with her or not yet, but when there seem to be options to change the consistency of the pill, or when deterrents like adding capsaicin are available, and they are ignored, it does become suspicious.
Bautista, D.M., Sigal, Y.M., Milstein, A.D., Garrison, J.L., Zorn, J.A., Tsuruda, P.R., Nicoll, R.A., Julius, D. (2008). Pungent agents from Szechuan peppers excite sensory neurons by inhibiting two-pore potassium channels. Nature Neuroscience, 11 (7), 772-779. DOI:10.1038/nn.2143