Current Research and Scholarly Interests
Cellular and Molecular Mechanisms of Pain and its Control by Opioids
Our laboratory searches to resolve the identity of the neurons in the nerves, spinal cord and brain that participate in generating the sensation of pain, and to uncover the molecular mechanisms that regulate neural activity in pain circuits.
Pain is normally an acute, physiological sensation that we experience when our body is exposed to noxious and potentially damaging stimuli (e.g. noxious heat of an open flame). The unpleasantness of pain drives us to engage adaptive behaviors for avoiding these stimuli and favoring healing. However, when chronic, pain is a disease that severely affects the quality of life of many patients. Injuries or diseases (trauma, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, etc) can induce neuroplasticity in somatosensory circuits that leads to miscoding of sensory information: pain can then become spontaneous and be perceived in the absence of actual stimuli, and normally innocuous stimuli such as light touch or warmth can generate excruciating pain.
We want to understand how neural circuits are functionally organized to encode qualitatively and quantitatively distinct pain signals, and to allow discrimination of pain from other somatosensory experiences such as touch or itch. Our ultimate goal is to identify the changes in this organization that underlie pathological chronic pain and to discover new molecular targets to treat this disease. One of our approaches is to gain understanding of how our endogenous opioid system functions. Opioid receptors and peptides composing this system modulate pain threshold and underlie the effect of the oldest, but still most effective, pain killers, namely opium poppy-extracted morphine and its derivatives. We search to establish the mechanisms by which opioids generate analgesia and detrimental side effects (e.g. tolerance, addiction, hyperalgesia, etc) to develop more efficient and safer analgesic treatments for managing chronic pain. To reach this goal we combine a variety of experimental approaches including molecular and cellular biology, neuroanatomy, electrophysiology, optogenetics and behavior.