“It took 40 years to catch on,” says Ronald Melzack of the Gate Control Theory of Pain he developed with Patrick Wall, “and I still have strong opponents: There are still really important physiologists who believe they’ll get an answer to chronic pain by examining spinal cord transmission.” When it comes to pain research, Melzack is a passionate believer that the brain, not the spinal cord, should be the focus. He cites cases where people experiencing phantom limb pain have had entire sections of their spinal cords removed—yet the pain persists. “That means pain has got to be in the brain!” he insists. “Happily, brain research is strongly entrenched at McGill.” Here, Melzack reflects on some of the bright lights of the next generation of pain research:
Jeffrey Mogil is a behavioural neuroscientist and holds the E.P. Taylor Chair in Pain Studies in McGill’s Department of Psychology. Since coming to McGill at Melzack’s suggestion, he discovered that mice experience “emotional contagion”—that is, they feel pain more strongly when they see another mouse in pain. “Jeff Mogil’s terrific work with mice is a gigantic step forward to understanding the human brain,” says Melzack.
Catherine Bushnell is a researcher in the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain. She uses brain imaging technology to study the neural basis of pain processing in humans, literally seeing what parts of the brain are active when a patient is in pain. “Her work is outstanding,” raves Melzack. “She’s shown how things like expectation and hypnosis change brain activity involved in pain processing. It’s incredible to actually see that effect.”
Irv Binik is a professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Royal Victoria Sex and Couple Therapy Service. His groundbreaking study on pre-menopausal dyspareunia, a recurrent acute pain felt by some women during sexual intercourse, helped redefine the condition as, in fact, a group of distinct pains—each with its own options for relief. “Now he’s showing that there seems to be parallel pain in men,” says Melzack. “We still don’t know what’s causing that pain in women, so to discover it in men adds another important dimension. It’s very, very good work.”
Michael Sullivan’s psychology research focuses on occupational injury, trauma, depression and stress-related disorders. Melzack is particularly excited by his work on catastrophizing. “That’s when a person thinks, ‘Oh jeez, I’ve got a pain and that means it’s cancer and that means I’m going to die’—and catastrophizing actually increases the amount of pain a person feels. Sullivan is working on understanding how that comes about, and he’s doing solid work in a challenging area.”