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Spring 2014
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Meeting of the Minds
Brown Institute for Brain Science members explore the mysteries of the brain.

Not quite a decade ago, when Professor of Neuroscience Diane Lipscombe P’14 began to look into the neurological roots of pain, she briefly thought that she must be overlooking seminal swaths of literature.

“It’s a really difficult problem, and so pervasive,” she says. “You think ‘Oh, we must know a lot about pain, I must not be reading the right things, this must already be known …’ but there are, in fact, fundamental aspects of pain that are unknown.”

Indeed, Lipscombe would discover that remarkably little was understood about how perception of pain is “produced” at the neuronal or synaptic level—a lack of knowledge that, she believes, may inform a societal tendency to dismiss the phenomenon. “Pain is sometimes described as being ‘all in your head,’” she says. “Well, of course it’s in your head. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

The prospect of exploring a vast landscape of uncharted scientific territory, in an area with enormous clinical and social implications, drew Lipscombe in.

“Pain is a major public health problem,” she says. “It crosses so many major disorders and diseases, from HIV to diabetes. It erodes productivity, and it can destroy quality of life. There’s an increased suicide rate among people who suffer with chronic pain. There’s a real need for new ideas and new treatments.”

Lipscombe is best known for her research on the cellular mechanisms that drive the function of calcium ion channels, which regulate many critical neuronal functions such as transmitter release, nerve growth, and synaptic plasticity. She believes that the work will enhance understanding of mental illness, as well as pain—while possibly helping to identify new drug delivery methods.

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