Chapter 1: An Introduction to Life on Earth
by Kelli A. Prior
Many people enjoy the hot taste of chile peppers. Developing a deeper understanding of chile peppers has proven to be an important area of scientific research.
Many people often wonder what makes chile peppers so hot. Scientists at the Chile Pepper Institute describe the cause as a compound known as capsaicin. A PBS Special entitled, Lifes Little Questions II, explored the biological actions of capsaicin. The capsaicin in peppers initially burns the mouth. Eventually the taste and pain receptors on the tongue turn numb.
A scientist and anesthesiologist named Wendye Robbins observed this phenomenon and applied the scientific method to develop a medical treatment for patients with debilitating pain. She hypothesized that capsaicin could have similar numbing effects elsewhere in the body. She tested her hypothesis by adding the capsaicin compound, in certain concentrations, to a cream base and applied it to affected painful areas of the body of subjects with chronic pain. Just like in the mouth, that part of the body burned when the cream was first applied. To alleviate the pain of that initial burning, patients were given a local anesthetic. Once the initial burning wore off, the treatment numbed the pain receptors in the area, just as Dr. Robbins had hypothesized! The results of these studies showed that the capsaicin cream treatments were able to control the pain for patients, even when no other known medical treatment had been successful. Patients who had previously been unable to walk are now able to walk and even run, thanks to the hot stuff in chile peppers.