UR pain researcher lands $8.3 million in federal grants

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With an $8.3 million in federal grants, the University of Rochester’s Paul Geha M.D. will continue to study the link between pain and the brain. The research could alter treatment and care for chronic pain sufferers.

Geha recently received the awards from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. An associate professor of psychiatry at the UR Medical Center, Geha’s research centers around the correlation between brain structure and chronic pain.

Paul Geha (Photo: URMC)

“Our ongoing research focuses on unraveling the mechanisms underlying pain perception in the brain, as well as utilizing brain circuitries to gain insights into the pathophysiology of chronic pain,” Geha says.

The grants will support research in three areas, URMC says:

■ $3 million funds investigations into whether language or facial expressions can be used to diagnose different groups of chronic pain patients and predict whether spinal-cord stimulation is working in chronic lower-back pain patients receiving this treatment.

■  $2.4 million will focus on finding structural gray and white matter biomarker in the brain that can help identify who is at risk of low-back pain becoming a chronic condition.

■ $2.9 million will test whether the brain signature of chronic low-back pain can also indicate other chronic musculoskeletal conditions, like knee arthritis pain or nervous system-related chronic pain. The research will also consider other chronic conditions, like major depressive disorder, and if an individual’s age or sex play a role in this neural signature.

Geha says the team hopes to develop quantitative biomarkers–objective measures of what’s going on in cells at a point in time—derived from natural language processing of patients’ pain narratives and multimodal brain imaging. These biomarkers could predict clinical outcomes including the long-term persistence or remission of pain and response to analgesics.

Geha’s previous research delved into the relationship between chronic pain and weight gain. Wiring in the brain, responsible for pleasure and motivation, could be affected by pain, changing eating behaviors. By using a range of neuroimaging techniques and behavioral testing, Geha’s lab examines neural responses. These tools help identify brain biomarkers.

“By employing these approaches, we anticipate that our projects will contribute to a significant advancement in revolutionizing the clinical approach to pain management,” Geha says. “Currently, the field heavily relies on subjective reports and clinical expertise. However, through the development of objective quantitative biomarkers, we aim to provide a more precise and reliable approach to assessing and understanding pain.”

Typically, chronic pain establishes itself as a condition when pain, stiffness, aching, burning or throbbing sensation exceeds three months. It can lead to other symptoms including anxiety, fatigue, depression, insomnia and mood swings.

According to an April report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 52 million people experienced chronic pain in 2021, or 21 percent of adults in the U.S. More than 17 million had high-impact chronic pain, restricting daily activities.

From nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs and acetaminophen to opioids to muscle relaxers, treatments have remained the same. Many suffer chronic pain without any treatment.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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