Print this page    •   Back to Web version of article

Chronic Pain: Hope Through Research
The Brain's Own Opiates

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

September, 1997

Both groups of scientists found not just one pain-suppressing chemical in the brain, but a whole family of such proteins. The Aberdeen investigators called the smaller members of the family enkephalins (meaning "in the head"). In time, the larger proteins were isolated and called endorphins, meaning the "morphine within." The term endorphins is now often used to describe the group as a whole.

The discovery of the endorphins lent weight to the general concept of the gate theory. Endorphins released from brain nerve cells might inhibit spinal cord pain cells through pathways descending from the brain to the spinal cord. Endorphins might also be activated when you rub or scratch your itching skin or aching joints. Laboratory experiments subsequently confirmed that painful stimulation led to the release of endorphins from nerve cells. Some of these chemicals then turned up in cerebrospinal fluid, the liquid that circulates in the spinal cord and brain. Laced with endorphins, the fluid could bring a soothing balm to quiet nerve cells.

Back | Next
Table of Contents

This article was provided by U.S. National Institutes of Health. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

General Disclaimer: is designed for educational purposes only and is not engaged in rendering medical advice or professional services. The information provided through should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or a disease. It is not a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, consult your health care provider.