This Woman Feels Virtually No Pain Due to a Strange Genetic Mutation

Jo Cameron
Jo Cameron, left, with her husband, Jim, and children Jeremy and Amy. Photo: handout

A team of researchers identified a Scottish woman who feels virtually no pain and experiences very little fear or anxiety, according to a case study published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia.

The team, led by scientists from University College London, said that Jo Cameron's unusual characteristics came down to a genetic mutation, which may also provide her with enhanced healing abilities.

"We found this woman has a particular genotype that reduces activity of a gene already considered to be a possible target for pain and anxiety treatments," James Cox, an author of the study from UCL, said in a statement.

The scientists hope that investigating the mutation could provide insights into how to treat a host of different conditions.

"Now that we are uncovering how this newly identified gene works, we hope to make further progress on new treatment targets," he said.

According to the study, the woman claims that she has never needed painkillers after surgeries and often does not notice when she has been cut or burned—until she can smell the burning flesh, that is. Cameron also noted that any injuries she did sustain appeared to heal very quickly.

"She is almost completely insensitive to noxious stimuli," Cox told Newsweek. "She also frequently burns herself by accident."

The researchers noted that Cameron is "talkative and happy with an optimistic outlook" and, furthermore, when she took a psychological questionnaire designed to rate levels of anxiety, she received the lowest score.

"She also reported never panicking, not even in dangerous or fearful situations, such as in a recent road traffic accident," the authors wrote in the study.

Doctors first became aware of the woman's unusual condition when she sought treatment for a hip problem at the age of 65. She was diagnosed with severe joint degeneration, which, unusually, caused her no pain.

Then, a year later, Cameron had surgery on her hand, shocking doctors when she said she would not require painkillers after the procedure.

"We had banter before theater when I guaranteed I wouldn't need painkillers," she told the BBC. "When he found out I hadn't had any, he checked my medical history and found I had never asked for painkillers."

After the surgery, hospital staff referred her to specialists in the genetics of pain at UCL and the University of Oxford who discovered two mutations that could be responsible for her condition—one of which, known as FAAH-OUT, has been described for the first time.

"She is the first person that we are aware of who has both of these particular mutations," Cox said.

Given that Cameron was not aware of the strangeness of her condition until her mid-60s, the researchers said that there could potentially be more people with the mutation in the general population. And this could have important implications for medical research.

"People with rare insensitivity to pain can be valuable to medical research as we learn how their genetic mutations impact how they experience pain, so we would encourage anyone who does not experience pain to come forward," said Cox.

"We hope that with time, our findings might contribute to clinical research for post-operative pain and anxiety, and potentially chronic pain, PTSD and wound healing, perhaps involving gene therapy techniques," Cox said.

Currently, the researchers are conducting further tests on cell samples taken from the woman in order to learn more about her mutation.

"I would be elated if any research into my own genetics could help other people who are suffering," Cameron said in a statement. "I had no idea until a few years ago that there was anything that unusual about how little pain I feel—I just thought it was normal. Learning about it now fascinates me as much as it does anyone else."

This article was updated to include additional comments from James Cox.