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Meet the Family That Feels No Pain… Literally

The Marsilis seem like the average family next door, their only difference is that they feel no pain. A hereditary and genetic mutation explains why this family might cry over spilled milk but not over a deep wound

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Due to a rare genetic mutation, the Marsili family actually can’t feel any pain.

Six-year-old Letizia Marsili loved to climb trees, light poles, and anything else she possibly could. One day, Marsili went about her regular daring routine and climbed a pole. However, this time around Marsili accidentally pierced her chest with a nail that was sticking out of the pole. While most kids scream and cry when they’re wounded, Marsili did not shed a tear. She pulled her body off the nail and covered the wound with her bloody shirt. Marsili was scared her mother would yell at her for her dangerous activities, so she kept her injury a secret. A few days later, her mother noticed Marsili’s cut when she was bathing her.

Marsili Simply Thought She Was a Tough Cookie

At age 52, Marsili recalls this incident and several other events of injury she experienced growing up. For example when she fell off her bicycle and sprained her ankle. The common denominator in all these typically painful experiences is the fact that Marsili never felt the pain at all. “I thought it was my character that I was strong,” she says in an interview.

The reason this “tough-girl” shed no tears when she got hurt is that she carries a mutated gene that causes congenital hypoalgesia, also known as human pain insensitivity disorder. The mutation causing this condition is extremely rare and prevents people from feeling any pain. It also desensitizes a person to other stimuli such as heat or extreme pressure. Marsili’s colleague, a pain researcher, suspected she had the pain disorder back in the year 2000. The mutation is genetic, so this pain researcher suspected Marsili’s family member had the same condition. It turns out she was right. She discovered that Marsili’s mother Mary, sister Maria Elena, children Ludovico and Bernardo, and her niece Virginia all carry this mutated gene.

The Members of the Marsili family create a perfect opportunity for scientists to research and uncover the exact gene that allows people to feel pain. In a recent study published in Brain, a group of scientists claims they found the exact mutation in the ZFHX2 gene in the Marsili family’s DNA. This unique discovery helps them create a possible drug target for alternative treatments for pain.

The Marsilis Are Not Alone

Individuals in families who experience painlessness are otherwise completely healthy and have healthy mental functionality. They are, in fact, able to feel touch and pressure. They notice and feel the difference between hot and cold sensations and are neurologically normal. Pretty much, they can feel anything as long as it’s not painful. The severity of the condition varies, and it all depends on which mutation a person has. James Cox is a molecular biologist who at the University College of London. He’s had patients with pain disorders similar to that of the Marsili family, except for the fact that his patients are not able to smell.

The Downside of Living Painlessly

The Marsili family can smell, and they also have some sense of pain that is dulled so they feel it less than other people would. The family can also endure high levels of spice without dramatically reaching for bread and a glass of milk. When it comes to temperature, the Marsili’s can tolerate heat, and they also don’t need to spend loads of cash on winter clothes since the cold doesn’t bother them as well. The downside of being insensitive to pain is that you can’t tell if you are injured. The Marsili family has multiple stories of discovering an injury much later on. Marsili’s mother recalls an incident when she went to the doctor and saw that her ankle broke days before her checkup. The same happened with her son; he went to the doctor and found out that his elbow was broken.

Not feeling pain sounds like the ultimate blessing. However, it is a hazardous condition. People with this pain disorder must continuously go to the doctor for checkups. Our pain sensors tell us when something is wrong. Imagine placing your hand on a hot stove top for a few minutes and not feeling your skin burning. Even our sense of smell plays a vital role in our lives, how else would we know if food is rotten or if there is a fire in the room next door. While the Marsili family may have it easy in many aspects of their lives, they sure have to be extra careful.