Aug. 11, 2009 -- Genetically speaking, redheads are mutants. They may not wear capes or fight crime like the ones we see in comic books but, as a growing body of research shows, they might have special powers.
In the past five years, researchers have found that the genetic mutation responsible for redhead's ruby tresses and snow-white skin also makes them more sensitive to hot and cold -- and it could also make them a whole lot harder to numb up.
Past reserach has shown that, on average, redhead men and women require 20 percent more anesthesia than their non-ginger peers.
A recent study from the Journal of the American Dentistry Association also shows that redheads tend to be more afraid of going to the dentist and are twice as likely to avoid dental care -- presumably because their need for more numbing leads to unexpected complications in the dentist's chair.
These findings came as no surprise to me. As a redhead, I'm all too familiar with the medical peculiarities associated with my copper locks, though I had to learn them the hard way.
Code Red: When Hair Color Brings on the Hurt
I was 18 and about to be put under for the first time in my life so that all four of my wisdom teeth could be removed.
I was prepped for the dental surgery, just waiting on the anesthesiologist, when the nurse assisting commented on my hair.
"Oh, a redhead," she said, her brow slightly furrowed.
Although I'm used to people making remarks about my hair, this is not the response I usually get.
"Yeah?" I said in a questioning tone.
"I always heard that redheads need more anesthesia than expected, but it's probably just an old wives' tale," the nurse said. "I wouldn't worry about it."
With this less-than-comforting send off, she left and the anesthesiologist came in. Apparently, he hadn't heard that particular old wives' tale because halfway through the surgery, I woke up.
Disoriented, slightly delirious from the drugs, but conscious nonetheless, I started flailing about, attempting to talk despite there being enough cotton in my cheeks to stuff a teddy bear.
It took two nurses, the dentist, and the receptionist to calm me down enough to give me more anesthesia. I think, just to be safe, they gave me enough to knock out a small elephant because the next thing I remember, I was waking up in my parents' bed some eight hours later.
Why Reds Need More Meds
If other redheads have dental traumas like this one, it's no surprise that we are more likely to have dentist-related anxiety, as researchers found recently.
Abbie Beacham, a behavioral scientist on this study and natural redhead, admits that her experience, too, fits the study's findings: "I often have had difficulty getting numb for procedures," she said. "Consequently, those who know me well know that I have a dental phobia."
But what's behind these ginger-specific traits? What's the deal with redheads and pain?
In the late 1990s, scientists discovered that red hair -- and a slew of traits that usually accompany it -- are the result of a mutation of the Melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) gene. For those with brown, black or blond hair, this gene produces a protein called melanin, which colors the hair and allows the skin to tan.
In redheads, the mutated MC1R gene produces pheomelanin instead, a protein that accounts for the flaming hair, pale skin, and freckles that we associate with carrot-tops.
As redhead research progressed, researchers found that MC1R mutations also affected the perception of pain and the effectiveness of certain drugs meant to block or numb the sensation of pain.
A study headed by Dr. Edwin Liem at the University of Louisville in Kentucky found that redheads are more sensitive to hot and cold, and are hurt by the cold at temperatures nearly 11 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than others. This group of researchers is also responsible for the study on redheads and anesthesia and the recent one about dentist-related anxiety.
The problem is, in some studies, researchers find that redheads are more sensitive to pain, while others find they're less sensitive.
Cutting Through the Conflict on Redhead Pain
Contrary to Liem's work, another group of researchers, based at McGill University in Montreal, have found that redheads are less sensitive to electric shock pain and more sensitive to the effects of certain pain-killing drugs.
Jeffrey Mogil, director of the pain genetics laboratory at McGill, heads up this research, offered his thoughts on this apparent contradiction.
One part of the confusion, says Mogil, is that he tests with analgesic, or pain-reducing, medication, while Liem's Louisville studies test for anesthetic, or pain-numbing, drugs.
"They work in different ways in the body," Mogil says. "It's like comparing apples and oranges."
Concerning the different pain findings, he says, "It's perfectly possible that the neural circuitry underlying heat pain and electric shock pain is different and these two findings can happily coincide."
But the research Mogil is currently working on shows that "redhead" mice are less sensitive to all kinds of pain, thermal pain included, so it looks like the conflict won't be completely cleared up any time soon.
Redheads to the Rescue
OK, so being resistant to the very drug that will save you from feeling unnecessary pain may not seem like a super power but, according to Dr. Elliot Krane, director of Pain Management Services at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif., this genetic glitch does have powerful implications for medicine.
"[It] goes way beyond redheads," he says. "For centuries, doctors observed drugs having varied effects on people ... and mindlessly chalked it all up to human variability."
But the MC1R research proves that our genes can preordain how drugs will react in our bodies. The study of this interaction between genes and drugs, called pharmacogenomics, is the cutting edge of drug research, according to Krane, and may one day lead to safer, person-specific prescriptions.
"It will be possible to tailor their dosage regiment to their genetic profile, improving drug efficacy while reducing adverse effects," Krane says. "All this is probably less than a decade from reality."
Redheads' Power for Good
If this is the case, then -- through our genetic quirks -- redheads have inspired research that may one day lead to safer medicine. We may not fight crime but I like to think that in this small way, redheads are using their mutant powers for good.
You know, saving the world one traumatizing dentist visit at a time.