March 13, 2020, by mstalniceanu

Chronic Pain Research: Are new developments driven by luck or motivation?

In Conversation with Gareth Hathway

Written by María Ángeles Jiménez Sigstad

As animals, we have evolved to recognise Pain before the site of injury is experiencing an actual damaging experience. Therefore, we have learned to prevent events that could seriously damage us or even cause our death. This is one of our survival mechanisms. However, sometimes, pain can happen without a damaging factor causing it. In the UK, if this type of pain is persistent for more than 3 months, it is diagnosed as chronic Pain. The British Pain Society says that 43% of UK’s population has chronic Pain, with 14.3% experiencing moderately or severely disabling chronic pain (1).

To discuss the study of Pain, we have met with Dr Gareth Hathway. He is an experienced researcher in the study of Pain and nociception within the University of Nottingham, and he has recently been selected as the Director of Neuroscience Degrees. For that reason, we also discussed the different paths that can lead to Academic Research in Neuroscience.

1. Why were you interested in Pain Research when you first started in this area?

I ended up in this area of research by chance. I was looking for a job, and I was applying for loads of Post-Docs. I can remember seeing an advert in Nature, using the physical copy of it, it was that long ago. There was a “new thing” being advertised, The Welcome London Pain Consortium and they had opportunities. The reason I was interested in it was due to the use of in vivo work, working with live organisms. That was my background from my PhD and something I wished to continue. There was one in particular which required to do in vivo electrophysiology. I wanted to learn how to do that. So, I “fell” into Pain Research. I didn’t realise that during my PhD, I published a paper related to Pain, but I really ended up in the field by chance.

2. Were you also interested in working with organisms on test tubes or laboratory dishes, in vitro work?

I didn’t want to do that because in vitro work was a trend when I started back in 2003 but my heart lay in understanding how systems work and that can only be done in vivo.

3. Has your interest in in vivo changed from then?

My views have changed. The level of oversight that we get from the Home Office is a lot higher than when I started. It doesn’t restrict what we do. We have to justify everything we do a lot more thoroughly. This means that researchers now question more whether they want to do in in vivo work in the future.

4. What do you think about recycling data using computational tools, like Machine Learning?

The problem with Neuroscience is that the volume of resolution for some assays isn’t cellular. For example, voxels of MRI are relatively huge, much more than a cell. I think, eventually, improved technology will allow us to reach that point, but at the moment we are not there. Multidisciplinary research is the future to try to link basic lab biology to human or veterinary clinical research. Cell-based research is essential, but we need in vivo work in terms of therapeutics, to know how it integrates into the whole system. This is especially true with pain which is very complicated.

5. How much do you think that the trends have changed?

When I first started, every single biggest trendy new method was related to bioinformatics, for example, “gene chips”. It did create a large amount of data. At the same time, microglia were also a trend in pain research; everything was neuroimmune-based, now is more about RNA and transcriptomics. Looking for a transcriptome for differences for people in acute versus chronic pain. All these trends feed into research programmes and eventually become standard and contribute to a suite of approaches to tackle questions. In many ways we’ve almost gone full circle. There are lots of new research programmes looking at opioids and investigating the opioidergic system. Techniques have changed. In situ- hybridisation was meant to aid our understanding of the nervous system almost exclusively when I was an undergraduate. Science is very fashion-conscious. Now you can’t publish a paper that uses only one technique, you have to do more. That means we as scientists need to collaborate- which is great!

6. Do you have any take-home message?

To succeed in this job, in this career, you either have to be really focused and plan every step and sacrifice a lot; or you’ve got to be really lucky. The truth for most people probably lies somewhere in between. I was lucky. But, you have to be resilient. There’s a lot of rejection in research, from jobs to papers to grants. You have to learn to pick yourself up and go again.

In conclusion, pain research is in continuous development, and scientific standards have changed throughout the years. Selecting a career in academic research could be aligned with the luck of pure motivation. Most discoveries have been made due to curiosity. Sometimes, even though scientists were trying to test a hypothesis, the rejection of it became the new discovery. That’s why we say “Eureka!” every time we find something out of the blue. That word was used for the first time by Archimedes, an Ancient Greek mathematician when he discovered that the volume of water expelled was equivalent to the size of water of the body that was submerged. Since there’s a large amount of population experiencing chronic pain, we may need another “Eureka!” moment to find a solution to this problem. For that, we cannot judge how each scientist ends up in Academic Research. We need every “Eureka!”

  1. The British Pain Society. THE SILENT EPIDEMIC – CHRONIC PAIN IN THE UK [Internet]. News. 2016. Available from:
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