magic starSummarize by Aili

Pleasure or Pain? He Maps the Neural Circuits That Decide. | Quanta Magazine

๐ŸŒˆ Abstract

The article profiles Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, an associate professor at Columbia University who studies how the brain determines whether a touch to the skin is painful or pleasurable. It covers his background, research approach, and key discoveries, including:

  • Developing a new quantitative measure of pain in mice to study genetic variability and the transition from acute to chronic pain
  • Identifying a pathway from the skin to the brain's reward centers that explains why some forms of touch are rewarding
  • Studying naked mole rats, which do not feel some forms of pain, to potentially find new ways to block pain

๐Ÿ™‹ Q&A

[01] Introduction

1. How did Abdus-Saboor's parents support his interest in science as a child?

  • His parents supported his interest in science by getting him animals as birthday presents and allowing him to take over the third floor of their house for a yearlong science fair project in high school.
  • They are not scientists themselves, but were very supportive of his "escapades and adventures in the scientific realm."

2. How did Abdus-Saboor's college experience at an HBCU shape his career?

  • Attending an HBCU (historically black college) like North Carolina A&T increased his self-confidence and provided a nurturing, non-competitive environment where faculty cared about students and they worked together.
  • It was a "wise decision" as he comes from a lineage of people who attended HBCUs.

3. How did Abdus-Saboor transition from studying cellular development in worms to studying pleasure and pain in neuroscience?

  • As a PhD student, he studied a molecular pathway in roundworms involved in cellular development, demonstrating how these pathways control basic cell type and shape.
  • He then moved into neuroscience, attracted by the many open questions and opportunities to make an impact, despite lacking formal training in the field. He proactively sought out a mentor to learn neuroscience.

[02] Developing a Pain Scale

1. How did Abdus-Saboor develop a new quantitative measure of pain in mice?

  • He was dissatisfied with the traditional approach of just looking at how often an animal withdraws its paw, as this doesn't reliably indicate pain.
  • He got the idea from observing high-speed videography of the acoustic startle response in zebrafish, realizing he could use a similar approach to record an animal's full movement response to a skin stimulus.
  • This allowed him to assign numerical values and weights to different movement features to create a single quantitative pain scale.

2. How does this new pain scale enable Abdus-Saboor's research?

  • It allows him to study genetic variability in pain sensitivity across different mouse strains and identify new pain-related genes.
  • He also uses it to measure pain levels and correlate them with brain activity patterns to understand the transition from acute to chronic pain.

[03] Studying Pleasurable Touch

1. What led Abdus-Saboor to study the neuroscience of pleasurable touch?

  • He read a paper showing certain skin cells responded to gentle touch, but without connecting it to natural behavior or the brain.
  • As a postdoc, he genetically engineered mice to have light-responsive gentle touch neurons, planning to stimulate them and observe the mice's behavior.
  • This launched a project that traced the pathway for social touch from the skin to the brain's reward centers.

2. What are the potential medical implications of understanding this skin-to-brain pathway for pleasurable touch?

  • It suggests the skin could be a good therapeutic target, as the accessible touch pathway connects directly to the part of the brain that makes us feel good.
  • This could potentially be used to improve mental health, for example by using a skin cream to activate these neurons and offset harms from social isolation or treat anxiety/depression.

[04] Studying Naked Mole Rats

1. Why are Abdus-Saboor and his team studying naked mole rats?

  • Naked mole rats rely heavily on touch, with a brain area devoted to touch that is three times larger than in other mammals.
  • They also do not feel pain from capsaicin (the active ingredient in hot peppers), suggesting they have brain pathways that shut down pain signals.
  • Studying these pain-insensitive pathways in mole rats could lead to new ways to block pain in humans.

2. What challenges has Abdus-Saboor faced as a young Black scientist?

  • He has been fortunate to have supportive mentors and colleagues of diverse backgrounds, unlike some other underrepresented minorities.
  • However, he has still experienced incidents of racism, such as being stopped and harassed by university police who did not think he belonged on campus.
  • His advice to aspiring Black scientists is to surround themselves with good people, be open to support from unexpected sources, and not let these challenges crush their dreams.
Shared by Daniel Chen ยท
ยฉ 2024 NewMotor Inc.