A rich tradition: experts speak in 14th annual McGill Pain Day

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Over 150 pain researchers and specialists participated in the 14th annual McGill Pain Day on Thursday, which was organized by McGill’s Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain and the Department of Anaesthesia. Held in the New Residence ballroom, the day-long event brought together students and researchers to discuss our understanding of, as well as the treatment and curing of pain.

The Edwards Centre, the largest pain research centre in the world, is composed of 39 researchers from the Faculties of Medicine, Dentistry, and Science in a community that promotes research for treatment and cures of chronic pain. In August, the centre will play host to the 13th World Congress on Pain.

“There are so many different laboratories studying pain on campus and in different departments,” said Dr. Cathy Bushnell, a former director of the Edwards Centre who attended the event. “Every presenter here can finally get to know each other and share their research.”

The keynote address was delivered by Dr. Rami Burstein, a Harvard University professor of anaesthesia and critical care specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre at Harvard. Burstein’s research on migraine pain and light exposure made headlines internationally earlier this month.

In his lecture titled “How Does Light Exacerbate Migraine Headache in the Blind?” Burstein explained how his research discoveries may provide an explanation for why light can worsen migraine headaches. Burstein’s team of researchers began with a study of blind subjects who suffered from migraines and found that, for those classified as legally blind, exposure to light worsened migraine headaches. His tests on blind subjects and then on rats revealed the existence of a light pathway that would explain how, for even the legally blind, pain receptors activated during migraines could be worsened by exposure to light.

“We are putting together a new pathway,” Burstein said.

The discovery of the pathway has opened a dialogue on the treatment of photophobia, a condition characterized by oversensitivity to light. For Burstein, and for participants and attendees alike, pain has been emphasized as an important field of scientific study, and ultimately as the starting point for finding treatment.

“Pain is a brain function, and it is as subjective as any other brain function: love, hate, emotions, or feelings,” said Dr. Fernando Cervero, Director of the Edwards Centre. “There are important cultural, social, and religious influences with pain, but what we know is that it is an unpleasant thing we want to get rid of. We need to know more about the brain and its sensations, and translate what we find in the lab to the patient. Ultimately we want to develop new pain treatments. Some are still very old, like morphine, and we need something with fewer side effects.”

Earlier in the day, event organizers facilitated a workshop for trainees, titled “Clinical and Therapeutic Implications of Peripheral and Central Sensitization during Migraine,” followed immediately by a poster session. The poster session enabled 39 teams of trainee researchers to present their findings to colleagues and experts in their fields.

The Pain Day theme brought together different faculties in scientific research to explore pain in multiple and diverse ways, ranging from the connection between pain perception and long-term yoga practice to the study of anxiety caused by chronic inflammatory pain to the implementation of an acute pain service for the Montreal Heart Institute.

As the session drew to a close, prizes were awarded by the Quebec Pain Research Network and judged by Burstein for notable posters in clinical research and basic science research. A researcher from the University of Sherbrooke received the award for best clinical research in his study of a rare neuropathic facial pain disorder. In the basic science category, two McGill research teams received an award for their studies on lower back pain and on spinal cord inflammation.

“Pain is really fascinating,” said Melissa Farmer, a post-doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at McGill who attended the event. “By definition, pain can be understood from constantly working with how the external body correlates with human experience. It becomes enhanced by our senses in ways that can’t be compared by our other sensations.”