Alumni Update | Issue Eight 2014

Experts in the making

Tory Madden and patient

Research degree students expand horizons

From aches felt in missing limbs to discomfort lingering in long-healed injuries, some aspects of chronic pain have no easy explanations.

Sansom Institute PhD candidate Tory Madden (pictured above left) is investigating how the brain interprets nerve signals to produce pain, and specifically whether pain can be classically conditioned.

Classical conditioning, made famous by Pavlov’s experiments on dogs, is the production of a response from a learned association with an unrelated stimulus. Tory says her research is looking at whether the brain learns to associate danger with non-warning nerve signals, thereby triggering a pain response.

“If you’ve injured your back, and you bend forward, your brain will receive warning messages that are likely to be interpreted in a way that produces pain,” Tory says.

“But these messages don’t always trigger pain – it’s purely a brain response.

“In this example, warning messages are not the only signals being sent from damaged tissues. The brain also receives information about where and how tissues are moving – how fast, in which direction, and so on. The brain receives different types of information all the time.

“The problem is that after these tissues heal, and the warning messages have stopped, some patients still experience pain.

“So the question is: has the brain learnt to interpret non-warning messages as sufficiently indicative of danger that it produces a pain response?”

You can find more about Tory's research in the latest issue of Research Edge along with interviews with Jasmin Whittaker, whose new method of cross-linking silk polymers produces a material with wound-treating potential, and Kenneth Mbene, who has been visiting UniSA for research on phosphorus – an increasingly scarce resource with food security implications.

Find out more about our PhD and Masters by research progams.


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