Tasha Stanton answers the Holy Grail

Thursday, 21 Jul 2016

Tasha Stanton

In our latest Holy Grail Dr Tasha Stanton from the University of South Australia tells us about her work understanding the neuroscience behind pain and its clinical implications.

What’s the issue your research is trying to solve?

My research is trying to solve how the brain creates our bodily feelings, like pain and stiffness, and how body-relevant information can alter these experiences.

What have you discovered so far?

I’ve discovered that people with chronic osteoarthritis (knee/hand) have disruptions in their perception of the painful body part. They perceive it to be smaller than healthy controls do (hand OA), they aren’t very good at localising touch (knee OA), and the brain maps that code for movement planning are impaired (knee OA). I’ve also discovered that when we target these perceptual disruptions, for example, by visually altering the size of the painful body part, pain decreases.

What’s been your biggest hurdle?

Time, recruitment and equipment issues. First, there is not enough time in the day to read all I want to read and do all that I want to do. Second, it can be really hard to get people who are in a lot of pain and often can’t walk very far into testing sessions at the University. Third, the visual illusions I do require a lot of work – a lot of set-up time, practice and trial-and-error. I collaborate extensively with Associate Prof Roger Newport from the University of Nottingham – he is a programming genius – so this is my reprieve!

How far is your work from impacting patient care?

In terms of my research directly informing a new treatment; this is still at least 5 years away, because we need to determine in large trials whether this is an effective treatment option that has lasting, clinically relevant effects. However, my research findings immediately impact patient care by adding to our knowledge about pain.

Research shows that explaining the neurobiology of pain to patients, namely that how much pain you feel often does not represent how much tissue damage is present, is very helpful in reducing pain and disability.

My work adds to this narrative by showing that body-relevant information is important to the experience of pain. That is, despite not actually doing anything to the painful joint itself, pain can be decreased merely by changing how that painful body part looks (i.e., merely by altering body-relevant visual information).

Thus my work highlights the complexity of the experience of pain and also shows that the central nervous system is adaptable, even in common conditions, such as osteoarthritis.

If you could discover one thing in your research, what would it be? (what’s your holy grail?)

Why some people develop chronic pain and others do not.

What does your perfect day look like?

A sleep-in, a long run outside, lunch at a cute cafe, visiting a book shop, then beautiful wine and food at a dinner date with my husband!

If you could keep three possessions what would they be?

My laptop, my wedding photo album, and my running shoes.

What would you like your epitaph to say?

She lived life to the fullest, singing (badly) the whole way.

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