The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a division of the National Institutes of Health recently held a roundtable meeting on the topic of Itch Research. The National Eczema Association’s (NEA) advocacy helped make this first roundtable dedicated to itch possible. Why is this important? Itch is being given attention and looked at more closely on a national level.
NIAMS organizes four to five roundtables on an annual basis as a part of the Institute’s long-range planning process. Over the long-term, these discussions help shape the Institute’s thinking about areas of importance in our basic, translational, and clinical research portfolios.
The purpose of the Itch Research Roundtable was to assess the state of itch research, in terms of defining its frontiers, evaluating its progress, and identifying needs and new opportunities. Specifically, recent progress in revealing itch neuronal pathways, using laboratory and animal models, and the implications of these findings in human beings were discussed. The overriding goal of the roundtable was to explore the translation of these models into human studies. This summary reflects the opinions of the participants and the colleagues they polled prior to the meeting.
Itch (also known as pruritus) is a common symptom of many skin diseases, and can be a comorbidity of disorders in other organ systems, such as hepatic diseases, uremia, HIV/AIDS, and some drug treatments. Chronic itch also occurs in certain psychological disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Itch may have different manifestations across illnesses and patient populations, which can include distinct pain sensations, such as burning or stinging, and is reflected in the way that the sufferers scratch. The biological purpose of itch sensation remains debatable. By stimulating scratching behavior, for example, itch may serve to prevent deeper penetration of insects or microorganisms (e.g., hookworms or scabies mites) burrowing into human skin. However, the scratching reaction is usually too late to have any effect on the invading organism, but it may be pleasurable and provide some relief of the symptom. On the other hand, scratching behavior can be detrimental in situations, such as wound healing or inflammation (by reopening the wound or introducing a new infection). Hence, the evolutionary value of this sensation is not entirely clear.