“On this day in 1975, a group of scientists led by John Hughes and Hans W. Kosterlitz of the University of Aberdeen published an article in the journal Nature entitled, “”Identification of two related pentapeptides from the brain with potent opiate agonist activity.”” The article described their discovery of a molecule found in pig brains that they dubbed “”enkephalin”” (from the Greek word for cerebrum). The pain-reducing effects of these molecules led to the discovery of what we know today as our great natural opiate, endorphins.
Humans are, among other things, pleasure-seeking creatures and through laughter, touch, sex, and exercise we produce endorphins. The word endorphin comes from a combination of endogenous, meaning internal, and morphine, a drug derived from opium used for medicinal purposes. Endorphins are found naturally in our brains and are distributed through our nervous system. Along with their association with pleasure, endorphins have been proven to regulate and relieve pain.
The discovery of endorphins is attributed to the work of a number of scientists, most notably the neurochemist Choh Li who in the 1960s discovered the pain relieving effect of a hormone in the pituitary gland–a pea-sized gland at the base of the brain. This research led to scientists in the U.S. and Sweden discovering a receptor in the brain that was particularly responsive to opium, morphine, and heroin. When endorphins are produced in our body, they discovered, we feel relief if we are in pain, and a high if we are not.
Opiates such as morphine and heroin are extremely addictive, while the natural endorphins our bodies create are not. However, scientists do warn of side effects involved with the release of endorphins in cases such as the “”runner’s high”” that long distance marathon runners describe. As runners reach their physical limit, the relieving effect of endorphins can obscure the fact that their bodies are undergoing considerable strain leading to negative outcomes.
Scientists continue to study endorphins and their effect on the body. Meanwhile, in our great quest for happiness, we continue to crave and produce endorphins on a daily basis–some of us by running long distances, others by watching cats play the piano on YouTube.”