Studies conducted in the Scherrer Lab identify the different types of neurons that constitute pain neural circuits in nerves (left, dorsal root ganglion neurons), spinal cord (middle, dorsal horn neurons), and brain (right, amygdala neurons), and the molecular mechanisms that control neural activity and behavior associated with pain perception and opioid analgesia.
Pain is normally an acute sensory and emotional state 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 in 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. Thus, injuries or diseases (e.g., trauma, diabetes, arthritis, cancer) induce neuroplasticity in somatosensory circuits that lead to chronic pain: pain can then be perceived in the absence of actual stimuli (spontaneous pain), and normally innocuous stimuli such as light touch can generate excruciating pain (allodynia).
The magnitude of pain in the United States is outstanding, with more than 116 million Americans suffering from chronic pain. The lack of effective alternative treatments resulted in a dramatic increase in opioid prescription in the past two decades, driving an alarming augmentation in cases of transitions to addiction and deaths from opioid overdose, a phenomenon termed the Opioid Epidemic. In the US today, hydrocodone tops all prescriptions, and deaths from opioid overdose represents the first cause of accidental death, ahead of car accidents. Elucidating pain mechanisms is urgently needed to develop novel analgesic therapies and end the Opioid Epidemic.
The members of the Scherrer Laboratory aim to elucidate the mechanisms by which our nervous system generates pain, at the neural circuit, cellular, and molecular levels. We want to identify the pathological changes that occur within neural circuits when chronic pain develops, for discovering new molecular targets to treat this disease. One of our approaches is to gain understanding of how our endogenous opioid system modulates pain thresholds. Opioid receptors mediate the effects of opioid pain killers, such as morphine. By determining how opioids generate analgesia and detrimental side effects (e.g. tolerance, addiction, respiratory depression), we hope to develop more efficient and safer analgesics for the treatment of chronic pain. These studies will also identify novel approaches to counteract opioid side effects and battle the current Opioid Epidemic. To reach our goals, we combine a variety of experimental approaches including molecular and cellular biology, neuroanatomy, electrophysiology, opto- and pharmacogenetics, in vivo calcium imaging and behavior.