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 Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2005 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


Professor Explores New Pathway for Chronic Pain Management
By Jon Leslie, Publications and Creative Services

Professor of Psychology Linda Watkins is leading a collaborative effort to improve the quality of life for millions of chronic pain sufferers around the world. Watkins, CU President's Teaching Scholar and director of the CU-Boulder Interdepartmental Neuroscience PhD Program, has identified glial cells—nervous system cells that have long been ignored in chronic pain research—as a new pathway for the creation and maintenance of pain.

"Pain researchers have always focused on neurons relaying messages to neurons. They never considered that these non-neuronal cells could have anything to do with pain," said Watkins. "It was an unusual marriage of knowledge of immunology and knowledge of pain research that allowed ours and a few other labs to really start to recognize what the power of glial cells could be in terms of pain."

Watkins discovered that during the so-called "sickness response"—when the body is challenged by infection or injury—the immune system takes command and alters how the brain works, causing symptoms such as fever, sleep and increased pain by activating glial cells in the nervous system. According to Watkins, this same ancient physiological survival system also serves as a pathological cause of pain.

In situations like the flu or a minor injury, "the immune system acts as sense organ to tell the brain you're in danger and create these responses to protect you," Watkins said. "But if you tap into this system in a pathological way—such as nerve damage, amputation and so forth—maybe what you're really doing is activating the glial cells to enhance pain pathologically."

Through a CU licensing agreement, Watkins's laboratory—along with CU-Boulder molecular biology and chemical and biological engineering researchers—is collaborating with Avigen, Inc. to develop a gene therapy technique that targets glial cell response. Watkins' team was recognized earlier this year with awards and funding from the American Pain Society, the PsychoNeuroImmunology Research Society and the National Institutes of Health.

To Watkins, her research "is a great example of basic science turning a sharp corner into something very applicable. When we started this, people in the pain field were kind of scratching their heads and asking why we cared about sickness. But this has led us to something I'm hopeful will make it to the clinic and really impact the lives of millions of people."

For more information visit Maier/Watkins Laboratory of Behavioral Neuroscience.

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