For the past year, Lipscombe has also been collaborating with Professor of Medical Science Julie Kauer to overcome a major technical obstacle that has impeded researchers’ progress in the study of pain. The two, soon to be joined by Associate Professor of Neuroscience Christopher Moore, are investigating a method for isolating the neural pathways that carry the pain response from those that transmit other sensations, such as touch or warmth, so that they can be clearly observed and tested.
“We’re exploring use of optogenetic techniques to study pain pathways using a light source,” Lipscombe explains. “That will allow us to look at the synapse during the pain response and see what the signal looks like, how effective the synapse is, and if the synapse changes its efficacy in response to different types of activity.”
Lipscombe and Kauer are particularly interested in the process that converts acute pain to chronic pain—a remodeling of the pain pathways, commonly experienced by people with spinal cord injuries and peripheral neuropathy, among other conditions, that can generate chronic pain from the physical echo of a previous acute episode or injury. They suspect that their research may also carry implications for other disease processes that “rewire” the neural pathways, such as addiction.
“No one has ever shown what happens when pain travels from, say, the finger to the spinal cord to the brain, and nobody really even knows if there are distinct pain pathways,” says Kauer. “Exploring the basic cellular mechanisms would open the door to understanding and possibly addressing the physiological changes underlying a number of neurological and psychiatric disorders.”
The work has been supported by seed funding from the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research and by the Brown Institute for Brain Science (BIBS), an interdisciplinary enterprise that encompasses 19 academic departments, involves more than 100 faculty members, and extends from the College to the Medical School to its affiliated hospitals. Representatives of more than 10 departments sit on the executive committee that drives the Institute’s strategic direction.