Two junior faculty received Rita Allen Foundation Awards in Pain

Meaghan Creed, PhD, and Jordan McCall, PhD have received exciting new grants to study the biology and mechanisms of pain. The Rita Allen Foundation has named its 2019 class of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars, celebrating young leaders in the biomedical sciences whose research holds exceptional promise for revealing new pathways to advance human health. The selected Scholars will receive grants of up to $110,000 annually for a maximum of five years to conduct innovative research on critical topics in cancer, immunology, and neuroscience. The 2019 class of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars includes five scholars whose research relates to the biology of pain—a complex neurobiological system with widespread societal impact.

Meaghan Creed, PhD, Assistant Professor, Washington University Pain Center

Research in the Creed lab focuses on synaptic plasticity and neuromodulation within defined neural circuits in the ventral basal ganglia, a collection of brain structures involved in reward learning and selection of flexible behavior. Specifically, they look at how chronic pain, addictive drugs, or genetic mutations alter function of these neural circuits, and how circuit dysfunction contributes to symptoms of chronic pain, substance use, and mood disorders. The lab’s ultimate goal is to leverage insight from circuit studies to develop novel neuromodulation for these disorders, including deep brain stimulation and focused ultrasound. By first determining how neuronal and circuit adaptations drive specific behavioral symptoms of disease, we can establish a strategy for targeted circuit manipulation in a disease state. We then rationally design neuromodulation paradigms and validate them in model systems to provide novel strategies to treat symptoms at the interface of chronic pain, mood, and substance use disorders.

“Support from the Rita Allen Foundation will allow my team and I to investigate how prolonged pain experiences drive functional changes in basal ganglia circuits. By integrating molecular, electrophysiological, and behavioral approaches, we will investigate how brain regions that process painful stimuli communicate with defined populations of neurons within the basal ganglia, and how the activity of these circuits changes as a result of the chronic pain experience. Ultimately, we hope to use this mechanistic understanding to normalize communication between neurons to restore basal ganglia circuit function and improve depression-like symptoms that emerge in chronic pain disorders.”

Jordan McCall, PhD, Assistant Professor, Center for Clinical Pharmacology

Dr. McCall leads a multidisciplinary research program aimed at understanding the neural mechanisms underlying the emotional distress associated with stress, chronic pain, and addiction. The long-term goal of the laboratory is to use a neural circuit-level understanding of the brain systems that are disrupted in anxiety and chronic pain to reverse these conditions. If these questions become intractable, the laboratory plans to develop new wireless technology to interface with the nervous system and explore new approaches to data analysis to access the most information from collected data.

“This funding makes what is easily the riskiest project in the lab a much more secure venture. One of the biggest challenges we face using rodents as models of complicated human conditions is that we cannot ask the animals how they feel. A simple question, but a very difficult one to answer. With this award, we will be working to overcome this barrier by extracting detailed information from videos of the animal’s behavior to determine whether they are in pain, or distress. We will use new types of data analysis from mathematics to essentially ask the mice that simple question, “How do you feel?” By the end of this award, we aim to have made strides in identifying stress and pain in animals without having to disturb their daily routine. This approach will hopefully enable new strategies for understanding neural circuit function and therapeutic development.”

Congratulations to both of our Rita Allen Foundation Scholars!