How does the nervous system encode a gentle caress versus a painful stimulation? And how does this code change during neuropathic or inflammatory pain states, when touch becomes painful? To address this question we use an interdisciplinary strategy combining animal behavior, molecular biology, and neuroscience to uncover genes and pathways for pain and touch – from skin to brain.

In addition to Columbia University, we acknowledge support from the following programs:

Development of platforms to measure pain in rodents.

Artwork by Darneice Creates
Distinguishing between the sensory and emotional states of pain in animals has been extremely challenging, because traditional measurements of pain provide limited resolution. We use fast imaging, computation, and mathematics to overcome this problem. An innovation in our work is recording sub-second behaviors in freely behaving mice and analyzing the data with artificial intelligence (AI) to measure pain sensation and affect.  We couple AI with software development and statistical modeling to develop mouse “pain scales” . This technology allowed us to measure, in an automated and unbiased manner, pain sensation versus affect in the nonverbal mouse.  Now that we have the ability to objectively measure pain in mice, a new direction for our lab is to determine how the brain and genome control the biological basis of individual sensitivity to pain.

The role of sensory neurons in rewarding and therapeutic social touch.

Artwork by Julia Kuhl

Social touch is the foundation to bonds between loved ones.  Despite this general appreciation, how neurons in the skin connect with circuits in the brain to encode rewarding social touch remains poorly understood.  We are elucidating skin-brain social touch circuits using mouse genetics, skin optogenetics, behavior, electrophysiology, viral tracing, and in vivo brain imaging.

Neurobiology of sensation and social interaction in the African naked mole rat

The naked mole rat hails from East Africa and has adapted to life underground in a eusocial structure with one breeding queen, a handful of breeding males, and a multitude of subservient caste members. A single colony can contain a few dozen or a few hundred animals with members living upwards of 30 years. We are investigating the neurobiological basis of some of the fascinating biology of naked mole rats – from somatosensory specialization and insensitivity – to caste system specific behaviors and hierarchical social structure.