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Researchers have figured out what’s behind a vicious cycle: why scratching an itch makes you itch even more.

A new study with mice finds that scratching causes the brain to release serotonin, which intensifies the itch sensation. The same is believed to occur in people.

Scientists have known for decades that scratching creates a mild amount of pain in the skin, says senior investigator Zhou-Feng Chen, professor of anesthesiology, of psychiatry, and of developmental biology and director of the Center for the Study of Itch at Washington University in St. Louis.

“We always have wondered why this vicious itch-pain cycle occurs,” Chen says. “Our findings suggest that the events happen in this order. First, you scratch, and that causes a sensation of pain. Then you make more serotonin to control the pain. But serotonin does more than only inhibit pain. Our new finding shows that it also makes itch worse by activating GRPR neurons through 5HT1A receptors.”

Read more about this research in Washington University in St. Loius written by Jim Dryden.

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