People with diabetes often experience severe pain and numbness in their limbs. Eventually, those symptoms can intensify, leading to a complete loss of sensation in the hands or feet.
This untreatable nerve damage, a complication known as neuropathy, is heavily studied by researchers around the world, including Munmun Chattopadhyay, Ph.D., a basic research scientist at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso (TTUHSC El Paso). Chattopadhyay has made impressive strides in the neuroscience field over the years, landing her most recently in Diabetes Forecast, the premier magazine of the American Diabetes Association.
“I’ve found that exercise can have significant benefits for those suffering from neuropathy,” explained Chattopadhyay. In fact, because of her findings, the scientist actively encourages people with diabetes to participate in moderate exercise at least five days a week.
Chattopadhyay made the discovery while studying diabetic rats with symptoms of neuropathy. “Like people with diabetes, the rats’ paws were very sensitive to pressure, heat and cold,” she said. Curious about how exercise could naturally affect the disease, she placed the rats on a rigorous exercise regimen.
For five days a week, one group of rats exercised for 60 minutes in a motorized running wheel. The wheel kept the rodents at a true and steady pace of 10 meters per minute — not too easy and not too difficult.
After five weeks, the rats’ neuropathy symptoms were reassessed and compared to a group of “couch potatoes” (i.e., rats that did not engage in any exercise for the duration of the study). Proinflammatory cytokines — toxins secreted by the body that are thought to cause neuropathy — were also measured.
“Those inflammatory toxins were reduced in the group that exercised — and that same group showed a higher tolerance for cold, heat and pressure,” Chattopadhyay said. “This suggests that exercise can block the detection of pain.”
In recent years, Chattopadahyay’s research team has also studied how to treat neuropathy symptoms when they cannot be prevented.
“Physicians technically could treat neuropathy pain with opioids, but that puts the patient at risk of becoming dependent on the drugs,” she explained. “Then there’s the side effects of opioids; they’re not something a patient wants to rely on long-term.”
To get around this, Chattopadhyay has experimented with the herpes virus as a drug-delivery tool. She starts by rendering the virus inactive, preventing it from causing the classic sores that it’s associated with. Then, before injecting it into rats with diabetes, she adds medication that can stop nerves from sensing pain.
Just like the exercise regimen, the injection dramatically improved the rats’ symptoms. In fact, her study was so successful that the method is currently going through clinical trials at the University of Michigan — where Chattopadhyay’s research lab was formerly housed.
Today, these discoveries have earned Chattopadhyay recognition as a national expert in neuropathy and pain management. In fact, following the recent publication of a paper in the field, she was contacted by Science News to comment on the significance of the research findings. Her expert comments made national news and validated the research findings — that a new drug target could lessen the need for pain relievers.
Rajkumar Lakshmanaswamy, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, helped recruit Chattopadhyay to TTUHSC El Paso in 2014 and is proud of the research she is conducting.
“Diabetes is an issue of great concern throughout the world, but particularly here in El Paso, where the disease is quite prevalent,” he says. “Thanks to researchers like Dr. Chattopadhyay, we can offer some hope for patients suffering from this painful disease. I think we will continue to see great things from her in the future.”
Chattopadhyay joined TTUHSC El Paso in 2014. She holds a B.S. in zoology from the University of Calcutta, India, and an M.S. in zoology and Ph.D. in neurosciences from Jiwaji University in Gwalior, India.