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Does pain get on your nerves?

McGill Professor James Henry focuses on how nerves transmit pain

McGill University

When you're in pain, nothing else matters. You don't care about the news, sports results or the vagaries of bonds and securities. All you can think about is being pain-free. McGill professor James Henry's research is dedicated to making that happen. Dr Henry is Professor of Physiology and Psychiatry and President of the Canadian Pain Foundation. He is a winner of the Millennium Distinguished Career Award of the Canadian Pain Society and one of the leaders of the proposed new McGill Centre for Research on Pain. Currently, the only other such pain research centre in Canada is at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital. With seed funding already obtained from the Canadian Institute for Health and Research (CIHR), it is hoped that the McGill Centre for Research on Pain will soon be a reality.

As an electrophysiologist, Henry studies the electrical activity of nerve cells. These "neurons," as they are called, make up the pathway by which the pain message is transmitted to the brain. And it's all automatic. Touch a hot stove, and you instantly draw back your hand. You don't have to think about it! The neurons that make this happen don't actually touch each other. They are separated by a tiny gap called a synapse. So how does the message get across this gap? By means of chemicals called neurotransmitters. A nerve cell that has been electrically stimulated prompts activity in an adjacent one by releasing specific neurotransmitters that fit into receptors on the neighbouring cell. Dr. Henry has been investigating the possibility of modifying such synaptic activity by means of appropriate drugs. In particular he has been looking at the neurotransmitter peptide, substance P, which helps pain signals travel to the brain.

Every year pain prevents millions of people from going to work, leading to billions of dollars of economic loss. Many, including Dr. Henry, argue that much of the research being done on pain is simply not reaching enough people -- doctors or patients. One of the main goals of a "pain centre" is to improve this communication between pain researchers and the rest of the medical community. "By bringing people together, we hope to establish collaborations where they otherwise wouldn't arise spontaneously," says Dr. Henry.

Up to now, most of the advances made at McGill have been spearheaded largely by individual efforts. A prime example is Professor Ronald Melzack, who co-authored the famous "Gate Control Theory of Pain" and developed the world-renowned McGill Pain Questionnaire. Building on such pioneering work, the Centre would allow for a more cohesive and multidisciplinary approach to the treatment of pain.

Dr. Henry also hopes the Centre will have a public education mandate, to help inform patients suffering from pain that their situation is not hopeless. Options do exist to make them more comfortable. "Many patients don't know that special facilities are available where they can obtain the most up-to-date treatment for management of their pain," says Henry. Pamphlets put out by the Canadian Pain Society, an effort spearheaded by another McGill professor, Dr. Celeste Johnston, and distributed through physicians' offices and hospitals are already trying to promote this awareness. And McGill has organized a number of public lectures on pain, even devoting an entire research day to the topic every year.

"It's very disturbing how far behind society is in treating pain properly," says Henry. He is happy though that more attention is being paid and hails the prospect of further research and coordination of efforts which are now underway at the University. "It's only appropriate," he says, "given that McGill has been at the forefront of pain research for decades!" The ultimate goal, of course, is to alleviate suffering - so that former patients can go back to caring about everyday things, like the news and the stock market. Which of course may inflict a different kind of pain.

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This is the first in a series of interviews with McGill pain researchers whose investigations are funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research. The project, carried out in cooperation with The McGill Office for Chemistry and Society, aims to highlight recent advances in the study of pain. Permission is granted to reprint in whole or in part.

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