Shining a Light on Chronic Pain

A recent study from researchers at CÚRAM, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Medical Devices at NUI Galway, explores the use of optogenetics as a method to relieve chronic pain. Optogenetics uses genetically-encoded proteins that change position and shape in the presence of light to turn brain cells on or off.  

Pain is comprised of both sensory (physical intensity) and affective (emotional distress) components. A part of the brain involved in the emotional component of pain is called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).

Dr Sarah Jarrin, CÚRAM, NUI Galway and first author of the paper, said: “There is significant overlap in the neural circuitry of pain and anxiety in our brains. Sensory pain is our body’s natural alarm system, it is an important mechanism that alerts us to injury and danger. So rather than turning off that alarm system, we are targeting the distress component of pain, a promising target for chronic pain relief that is not addressed by current treatments.

“The technique of optogenetics is opening up lots of possibilities for further neuroscience research. With the use of light-activated proteins called opsins, optogenetics allows us to switch on or off a selective population of neurons that control this affective component of pain.”

The study, funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), focused on the two components of pain (physical and emotional), the distinct roles they play in the pain experience, and how they can often influence one another.

Chronic pain and anxiety frequently go hand in hand. People with chronic pain are also more likely to have anxiety and depression than the general population. The research looked specifically at the role of glutamatergic neurons of the ACC (glutamatergic neurons release the chemical transmitter glutamate, responsible for signalling between nerve cells) and changes in a protein marker of neuronal activity, known as c-Fos, in the ACC.

The study was able to show that when the glutamatergic neurons in the ACC were silenced, it is possible to abolish the aversion to pain without affecting the sensory component of pain. The study also showed that optogenetic activation of glutamatergic neurons of the ACC has a differential effect in males and females in terms of pain response.

Dr Jarrin added: “The inclusion of both sexes in pain studies is critical, because of differences in pain that have been observed between the sexes. Little is known about differences in the regulation of the physical and emotional components of pain in the male and female brain. Studies have found differences in the functional connectivity between the ACC and other brain regions of important regulating pain in males and females, which may account for differences in the effect of optogenetic treatment."

Being able to target the emotional component of pain specifically could be therapeutically beneficial for patients with chronic pain, however further research to better understand the neural circuitry is required to develop these improved treatments.

Professor David Finn, Co-Director of NUI Galway’s Centre for Pain Research and principal investigator on the published study, said: “We are excited to publish these interesting data which advance our understanding of how the brain regulates pain, and how this may differ between males and females.”

The study was carried out as part of Dr Sarah Jarrin’s PhD project, jointly supervised by Dr David Finn, Dr Michelle Roche and Dr Abhay Pandit at NUI Galway.

Researchers from NUI Galway’s Centre for Pain Research win poster prizes at national pain conference

Researchers from NUI Galway’s Centre for Pain Research recently won prestigious prizes for their research at the 20th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Irish Pain Society 2020, continuing an impressive track record of success in these competitions. The meeting was the Irish Pain Society’s first virtual meeting, held over the online platform Zoom.

The following researchers won prizes for their poster presentations:

  • Catherine Healy and Jessica Gaspar (joint first authors), supervised by Prof. David Finn and Dr. Michelle Roche, won the IPS Preclinical Research Medal for their poster entitled “Pharmacological blockade of PPAR Alpha impairs recognition memory but not anxiety-related behaviour in a rat model of chronic inflammatory pain”.
  • Laura Boullon, supervised by Dr. Álvaro Llorente-Berzal and Prof. David Finn, won Second Prize in the Preclinical Research category for her poster entitled “Sex dependent alterations in pain- and anxiety- related behaviours and cognition in a rat model of peripheral neuropathic pain”.
  • Dr. Hannah Durand, supervised by Prof. Brian McGuire, won the IPS Clinical Research Medal for her poster entitled “Prevalence and impact of primary dysmenorrhea among university students in Ireland”.
  • Kelly McDonagh, supervised by Prof. Brian McGuire, won Second Prize in the Clinical Research category for her poster entitled “Being a parent of a child with Down’s arthritis : an interpretive phenomenological analysis”.

The research competition was judged by a panel of international experts who commended the high quality of the research.
NUI Galway researchers joined researchers, clinical experts and scientists from a range of professional disciplines including pain medicine, surgery, nursing, physiotherapy and psychology in presenting their work to an audience of scientists and health practitioners. Marking the Global Year for Prevention of Pain, the meeting heard about challenges and opportunities in preventing pain, and new and innovative approaches in research and clinical practice.

CPR highlights 2019 So Far

Somehow we’re now more that midway through 2019 and we have a lot of CPR news to catch up on! Here are just some of the major highlights from the first half of this year:

  • The Medical Independent featured the work of the Centre in an article written by Laura O’Connor. The article, available here, describes some of the key work taking place in the Centre, detailing a number of the currently running studies.
  • Prof David Finn delivered a webinar in the HRB Primary Care CTNI spring series, entitled “Medical Marijuana – Hype or Hope?
  • Researchers Dr Brian Slattery, Laura O’Connor, and Stephanie Haugh delivered a webinar for the HRB TMRN on their experience of integrating a SWAT into an existing RCT. “Reflections on a SWAT: Lessons Learned” can be viewed here.
  • The Centre for Pain Research Annual Research Day took place in March, featuring a tour hosted by the pre-clinical researchers in the new Human Biology Building. The schedule was packed with talks from keynote speakers Dr Simon Beggs and Dr Owen Doody bookending the day. Additional presentations from members of the group covered a wealth of topics, with Sarah Jarrin and Laura O’Connor winning prizes for their oral presentations, and Emer Power, Rachel Humphrey, April Creaven and Jack Flynn winning prizes for their poster presentations. Pictured below are the prizewinners and keynote speakers with the co-directors of the CPR.
  • The University of Toronto Centre for the Study of Pain hosted their annual Connaught Summer Institute in Pain in July, attended by Dr Hannah Durand from the CPR and featuring Prof Brian McGuire as a keynote speaker. The annual event includes high-intensity lectures, panel discussions, small group work, and interactive workshops, ending with a scientific meeting.  
  • It’s been a great year for the CPR members of the International Cannabinoid Research Society – Prof David Finn was named President of the society at their recent symposium in Washington DC, while PhD student Orlaith Mannion won the best poster prize. Additionally, their 30th Annual Symposium will be held in Galway next year (4-9 July 2020). Pictured below are David and Orla following the prizegiving ceremony. 
  • Following in the recent run of international health conferences visiting Ireland, the Irish Pain Society have won the bid to host the 12th European Pain Federation Congress in Dublin in 2021. Members of the CPR, including Prof David Finn and Dr Michelle Roche, were involved in the bid by the Irish Pain Society, which was backed by the Dublin Convention Bureau, Fáilte Ireland, the CCD, the Lord Mayor of Dublin and Minister for Health Simon Harris. Pictured below is the IPS committee involved in the successful bid. 


CPR Research Featured in Brunswik Society Newsletter

Research led by Centre for Pain Research postdoc Dr Chris Dwyer was featured in the most recent edition of the Brunswik Society Newsletter. The Brunswik Society is a long standing association of researchers who are interested in understanding and improving human judgment and decision making. Dr Dwyer summarised the paper "Judgment analysis of case severity and risk of future disability of chronic low back pain patients by general practitioners" in a piece which can be found on page 11 of the newsletter, linked below. 

Brunswik Society Newsletter, November 2018

Reference: Dwyer, C. P., MacNeela, P., Durand, H., Reynolds, B., …, McGuire, B. E. (2018). Judgment analysis of case severity and risk of future disability of chronic low back pain patients by general practitioners. PLOS ONE, 13(3): e0194387.

Prof Brian McGuire gives talk in New Professor's Inaugural Lecture Series

The College of Arts, Social Sciences, and Celtic Studies recently invited co-director of the Centre for Pain Research, Professor Brian McGuire, to speak as part of the New Professor's Inaugural Lecture Series.


In his talk, Prof. McGuire spoke about work taking place in the Centre for Pain Research, focusing on clinical and psychological projects. The talk was also livestreamed from the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies for those unable to attend in person, and both the slides and live recording are available at the link below.

CPR Welcomes Prof Kevin Vowles

The Centre for Pain Research recently welcomed Prof. Kevin Vowles to Galway, where he gave a talk on his work around Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in the Department of Psychology. While in Galway, he also attended a CPR meeting to hear about the various research projects currently underway. 

Prof. Vowles is an internationally recognised expert in ACT for chronic pain and is co-author of the original ACT treatment manual on which we ha‌ve modelled our online ACT interventions at Centre for Pain Research. He has published around 80 papers in the area of pain management and is co-author of the book "Main, C. J., Keefe, F. J., Jensen, M. P., Vlaeyen, J. W. S., & Vowles, K. E. (Eds.). (2014). Fordyce’s Behavioral Methods for Chronic Pain and Illness. New York: Walters-Kluwer.". 


Pictured above are some members of the CPR with Prof Kevin Vowles.
Back L-R: Dr Brian Slattery, Darina Gormley, Josh Moran, Dr Siobhan O'Higgins, Stephanie Haugh, Caroline Jennings. 
Front L-R: Catherine Navin, Grace O'Sullivan, Prof Brian McGuire, Prof Kevin Vowles, Peter Walton, Laura O'Connor, Monika Pilch

Recent CPR Successes

Well done to our researchers, it's been a successful few months in the CPR!

  • Dr Brian Slattery, post-doctoral researcher was successful in his application for a HRB Trials Methodology Research Network award to carry out a study within a trial (SWAT), looking at methods for improving recruitment and retention of participants for an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy intervention for people with multiple chronic conditions.
  • Dr. Brian Slattery also received funding from IRC New Horizons to establish a new E-Health Research and Innovation Network (ERIN) which will launch on 14 June at NUIG.
  • Darina Gormley and Caroline Jennings, research trainees, were highly commended for their research presentations at the recent Psychology Students of Ireland Conference at NUIG.
  • Grace O'Sullivan won the prize for best poster presentation at the recent School of Psychology research day.
  • Sarah Jarrin won first prize for her poster at the Faculty of Pain Medicine meeting in Dublin earlier this year.
  • Angeline Traynor has been awarded a PhD Thesis Write-Up Bursary and also a travel bursary for the international Paediatric Pain conference in Kuala Lumpur.
  • Monika Pilch has been awarded a Hardiman PhD Scholarship to examine am augmented reality treatment for phantom limb pain.
  • At the recent CPR Annual Research Day - winners of the Best Poster Presentations were Orlaith Mannion and Mehnaz Ferdousi, and the winner of the Best Short Oral Presentation was Louise Corcoran.

Wonderful achievements in a very competitive environment - warm congratulations to all concerned!