Pain is helpful. It’s evolution’s built-in alert to current or impending damage to the body. Yet how we experience pain differs dramatically, person to person, and even hour to hour.

“Pain is not a unitary thing and no two pains are the same, even in the same individual,” said Irene Tracey, a professor and the Nuffield Chair in Anaesthetic Science at the University of Oxford, in a 2016 Cerebrum article.

How individuals feel pain varies based on physiological and neurological differences, mood, and even culture, Tracey said.

Tracey will explore these differences – and how she’s using human brain imaging to try to "see" pain – in her upcoming Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture, “Understanding Human Pain, Relief and Altered States of Consciousness using Brain Imaging,” at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 19 hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. 

The series of free, public lectures is named for Maury Strauss, a Roanoke businessman and longtime community benefactor who recognized the value of bringing speakers to share their leading-edge biomedical and health science research to Roanoke.

The lecture will be accessible via Zoom. Attendees should register online in advance.

“Dr. Tracey’s pioneering work in learning why pain hurts is advancing both our mechanistic understanding of nociceptive processes and our brain’s higher order construction of the perception of what we call pain,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “Her work has brought us closer to integrating the biological and cognitive mechanisms and substrates that create the phenomenon of pain.  This work is essential and provides a scientific basis for therapeutics and interventions ranging from pharmaceutical to behavioral that can be brought to deliver relief to people who suffer from chronic pain, improving their physical health, mental outlook and overall quality of life.”

Tracey heads the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain Pain Analgesia-Anaesthesia Imaging Neuroscience (P.A.I.N) Group, part of the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging at Oxford.

“Pain’s been around for a long time. It’s one of our oldest sensory and emotional experiences,” Tracey said in a 2017 podcast interview with Cerebrum’s editor. “We haven’t really nailed the answer to the question in terms of what actually constitutes the hurt experienced in pain.”

Tracey, who is an elected fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, believes neuroimaging will play a significant role in pain research, clinical decision making and drug development in the coming decade.

It is important to study all facets of pain, through multiple disciplines, bringing researchers closer to understanding why pain is different from one patient to the next with the same injury, worse at different times in the same patient, and why it becomes chronic in some people but not in others.

In one test, described in her Cerebrum article, Tracey’s laboratory found simply being sad can make pain feel worse. Research participants listened to composer Sergei Prokoviev’s “Russia Under the Mongolian Yoke” at half-speed – a piece noted for inducing sadness – while reading negative statements such as “I have no friends” and “my life is a failure,” before being exposed to pain. Then they listened to more uplifting music by Antonin Dvořák and read neutral statements before the same pain exposure. Not only did the pain feel worse to subjects in a sad state, the test found, but a look at subjects’ brains found more and disruptive activity in the brain when they were sad.

“Your life journey and all the bumps and scrapes that you’ve had on that journey and the different experiences you have, both psychologically and physically and culturally, will all influence how your central nervous system has been wired up,” Tracey said in the interview. That understanding raises a question at the crux of her research: “Can we unwire bad wiring, if you like, and make it better again?”

Tracey completed undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies at the University of Oxford before completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School’s Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging.

In 2008, the Royal College of Anaesthetists awarded Tracey the Patrick Wall Medal for advancing the science of pain medicine, and a year later she was named a fellow of the college. In 2017 she won the Feldberg Foundation Prize recognizing scientists who encourage Anglo-German friendship in medical and biological science.

To view Tracey’s virtual lecture, register online via the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute website to receive access to the Zoom link or watch a live webcast.

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