1. How emotions influence our internal clock

    November 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Freiburg press release:

    Just how it works is not known — but human beings have an internal clock which enables us to perceive and estimate periods of time subconsciously. A research team under Dr. Roland Thomaschke of the University of Freiburg’s Department of Psychology showed in experiments that this mental time-processing system is able to adapt quickly and flexibly to predictive time patterns. The study has been published in the specialist journal Emotion.

    The psychologists examined time periods between one and three seconds. Their test subjects were given the task of sorting nouns — which appeared one after another on a computer screen — according to gender (German nouns are grammatically masculine, feminine, or neuter). During the transition to the next word, a small cross was shown. What the test subjects did not know — they were looking at concepts which are seen as positive or negative, such as love and friendship on the one hand, torture and death on the other. With most of the “positive” nouns, the cross appeared before them for half a second; with most of the negative nouns it was for two seconds. “The pattern influenced the test subjects although they were not aware of it,” says Thomaschke. “If the combination was unusual, like a long interval before a positive concept, they had considerable difficulty sorting according to gender.” But this irritation was not manifested when no emotions were involved. With other test subjects, the psychologists used concrete and abstract concepts instead of positive and negative ones — and the effect was not observed in this case.

    This result helps to better understand human perception. In conversation, for instance, it can be observed that positive, agreeing answers are given faster than negative, rejecting ones. This experience leads to participants in online conferences — in which spoken contributions are preceded by a time delay due to the technology used — being regarded by the other participants as being negative; the experience of everyday conversation is subconsciously carried over into the conference situation. The results also suggest how it may be possible to get people’s attention. For example, if a website always shows advertising after the same period of time, users will be able to predict and better ignore it subconsciously. For advertisers it would therefore make sense to fade in advertising at irregular intervals — and to get attention by creating that irritation.


  2. Study suggests mammal brains identify type of scent faster than once thought

    by Ashley

    From the NYU Langone Health / NYU School of Medicine press release:

    It takes less than one-tenth of a second — a fraction of the time previously thought — for the sense of smell to distinguish between one odor and another, new experiments in mice show.

    In a study to be published in the journal Nature Communications online Nov. 14, researchers at NYU School of Medicine found that odorants — chemical particles that trigger the sense of smell — need only reach a few signaling proteins on the inside lining of the nose for the mice to identify a familiar aroma. Just as significantly, researchers say they also found that the animals’ ability to tell odors apart was the same no matter how strong the scent (regardless of odorant concentration).

    “Our study lays the groundwork for a new theory about how mammals, including humans, smell: one that is more streamlined than previously thought,” says senior study investigator and neurobiologist Dmitry Rinberg, PhD. His team is planning further animal experiments to look for patterns of brain cell activation linked to smell detection and interpretation that could also apply to people.

    “Much like human brains only need a few musical notes to name a particular song once a memory of it is formed, our findings demonstrate that a mouse’s sense of smell needs only a few nerve signals to determine the kind of scent,” says Rinberg, an associate professor at NYU Langone Health and its Neuroscience Institute.

    When an odorant initially docks into its olfactory receptor protein on a nerve cell in the nose, the cell sends a signal to the part of the brain that assigns the odor, identifying the smell, says Rinberg.

    Key among his team’s latest findings was that mice recognize a scent right after activation of the first few olfactory brain receptors, and typically within the first 100 milliseconds of inhaling any odorant.

    Previous research in animals had shown that it takes as long as 600 milliseconds for almost all olfactory brain receptors involved in their sense of smell to become fully activated, says Rinberg. However, earlier experiments in mice, which inhale through the nose faster than humans and have a faster sense of smell, showed that the number of activated receptors in their brains peaks after approximately 300 milliseconds.

    Earlier scientific investigations had also shown that highly concentrated scents activated more receptors. But Rinberg says that until his team’s latest experiments, researchers had not yet outlined the role of concentration in the odor identification process.

    For the new study, mice were trained to lick a straw to get a water reward based on whether they smelled orange- or pine-like scents.

    Using light-activated fibers inserted into the mouse nose, researchers could turn on individual brain receptors or groups of receptors involved in olfaction to control and track how many receptors were available to smell at any time. The optical technique was developed at NYU Langone.

    The team then tested how well the mice performed on water rewards when challenged by different concentrations of each smell, and with more or fewer receptors available for activation. Early activation of too many receptors, the researchers found, impaired odor identification, increasing the number of errors made by trained mice in getting their reward.

    Researchers found that early interruptions in sensing smell, less than 50 milliseconds from inhalation, reduced odor identification scores nearly to chance. By contrast, reward scores greatly improved when the mouse sense of smell was interrupted at any point after 50 milliseconds, but these gains fell off after 100 milliseconds.


  3. Study suggests stress faced by emergency call handlers damaging to long term health

    by Ashley

    From the University of Surrey press release:

    During this innovative study, researchers from the University of Surrey, University of Dundee, Anglia Ruskin University and Kingston University/St George’s, University of London investigated areas that impacted on the psychological health of call handlers.

    Previous research on how stress affects healthcare workers is largely focused on frontline staff i.e. paramedics and firefighters, however little is known on the impact on call handlers who make critical decisions in assessing what type of emergency response is required.

    Examining 16 studies from across the world, researchers identified key factors which cause operatives stress and potentially impact on their psychological health. Exposure to traumatic and abusive calls was found to negatively affect call handlers, because although they are not physically exposed to emergency situations, evidence demonstrated that they experienced trauma vicariously. In one study, participants reported experiencing fear, helplessness or horror in reaction to 32 per cent of the different types of calls that they received.

    A key stressor for call handlers was a lack of control over their workload due to the unpredictability of calls and a lack of organisational recognition of the demands of managing their assignments. One study reported that ambulance call handlers felt out of control of their workload after returning from rest breaks, which led them not taking scheduled breaks, leading to exhaustion. A lack of high quality training in dealing with pressurised calls was identified by some handlers as contributing to stress levels, with police call handlers in one study showing concern about their performance in handling fluid situations such as robberies in progress or suicidal callers, in case they did not make the correct decisions.

    Co-author of the paper Mark Cropley, Professor in Health Psychology at the University of Surrey, said:

    “Call handlers across different emergency services consistently reported their job as highly stressful, which in turn affects their psychological health. This undoubtedly impacts on their overall wellbeing, leading to increased sickness and time away from work, putting additional strain on the service and their colleagues.

    “Although handlers are not experiencing trauma first-hand the stress that they experience when responding to such calls should not be overlooked.”

    Co-author Professor Patricia Schofield, of Anglia Ruskin University, said: “Call handlers are the front line of emergency care but are often overlooked when it comes to studies about stress affecting the police, fire and ambulance services. This study finds evidence that staff are at risk of burnout, due to high workload, inadequate training and a lack of control.

    “It’s important that these staff are considered and interventions made to ensure that they can cope with their workload — these people make vital decisions which affect lives.”

    Co-author Professor Tom Quinn from Kingston University & St George’s, University of London, said:

    “Most people probably don’t recognise the stressful conditions under which emergency call centre staff work. Now that we have explored and summarised the evidence to identify the challenges these important staff face, we plan to develop and test interventions to reduce the burden on them and improve their wellbeing.”


  4. Study suggests engaging children in math at home equals a boost in more than just math skills

    by Ashley

    From the Purdue University press release:

    Preschool children who engage in math activities at home with their parents not only improve their math skills, but also their general vocabulary, according to research from Purdue University.

    “Exposure to basic numbers and math concepts at home were predictive, even more so than storybook reading or other literacy-rich interactions, of improving preschool children’s general vocabulary,” said Amy Napoli, a doctoral student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies who led the study. “And one of the reasons we think this could be is the dialogue that happens when parents are teaching their children about math and asking questions about values and comparisons, which helps these young children improve their oral language skills.”

    The findings are published online in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

    “It’s never too early to talk about numbers and quantities. One of the first words young children learn is ‘more,'” said David Purpura, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and senior author of the study.

    There are a number of ways parents can encourage math learning at home, such as talking about counting, connecting numbers to quantities and comparing values — more and less. It also helps to focus on counting as purposeful, such as “there are three cookies for a snack” rather than “there are cookies for a snack.”

    “This focus on math typically isn’t happening at home, but this shows that when parents do include math concepts it can make a difference,” said Napoli, who is working on tools to help parents improve math-related instruction at home. “When working with families, there is a math-related anxiety aspect and that is probably why more parents focus on literacy than on math. But, if you can count, then you can teach something to your child.”

    This study evaluated 116 preschool children, ages 3-5. The researchers assessed the children’s math and language skills in the fall and spring of the preschool year and examined how what their parents reported about math and literacy activities at home predicted children’s improvement over time. Napoli and Purpura do caution that these findings are only correlational and the future experimental work is needed to evaluate the causal nature of these findings. This research is ongoing work supported by Purdue’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies.


  5. Study suggests parents help shape how much pain preschoolers feel after vaccination

    by Ashley

    From the York University press release:

    While vaccinations protect children against various illnesses, the pain can sometimes be too much to bear. It’s no wonder most children and parents dread their vaccination appointments. Now new research from York University’s OUCH Cohort at the Faculty of Health found that the amount of distress and pain felt by a preschooler during a vaccination is strongly related to how their parents help them cope before and during an appointment.

    Professor Rebecca Pillai Riddell in the Faculty of Health, York Research Chair in Pain and Mental Health and senior author of the paper, has been following the OUCH Cohort children for over a decade. In the study, researchers used the data from 548 children who had been followed during infant and/or preschool vaccinations. Infants were included in the study if the infant had no suspected developmental delays or impairments, had no chronic illnesses, had never been admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit, and was born no more than three weeks preterm.

    The research, led by graduate student Lauren Campbell, examined children who were expressing the most pain during preschool vaccinations. The goal of the study was to find out what would best predict the children who had the highest pain and did the poorest coping during the preschool vaccination by watching both the child and the parent over repeated vaccinations over childhood. Researchers evaluated various pain behaviours such as facial activity (grimacing), leg activity (crunching of legs), crying and consolability to measure the level of pain in children. They also looked at what the child and parent said that related to coping with the pain.

    The results suggested that a preschooler’s ability to cope is a powerful tool to reduce pain-related distress but they need parents to support their coping throughout a vaccination appointment to have an impact in reducing pain-related distress.

    “When children were distressed prior to the needle, that made them feel more pain after the needle,” says Pillai Riddell.

    The data confirmed that engaging in coping-promoting behaviours like encouraging a child to take deep breaths was important. Using distractions such as pulling out an iPhone or distracting children with plans about what they will do after the appointment also improved children’s coping.

    However, Pillai Riddell says it may be even more important to avoid negative or distress-promoting behaviours.

    “Telling kids that ‘it’s ok, it’s going to be fine’ over and over again actually makes children feel anxious. Parents only say things are ‘okay’ when things are not ok. Ensuring you don’t criticize a child, such as saying: ‘strong girls don’t cry’, ‘big boys don’t do that’ is important. Also, don’t apologize to a child by saying things like: ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you,’ is also key, says Pillai Riddell. “These are all distress-promoting behaviours and increase pain and distress.”

    The study, published in Pain, found that not only is a parent’s behaviour during vaccinations critical to a child’s pain coping responses, but that the behaviour may also impact their reactions in the future. Moreover, the research may better inform medical care and may predict suffering by children during vaccinations into adulthood.

    “People who have negative reactions with doctors when they are young, may avoid preventative care in the future. If you didn’t like a needle when you were five, that can stick with you.”


  6. Study suggests cognitive behavioral therapy for children and adolescents with OCD works in the long run

    by Ashley

    From the Aarhus University press release:

    Some children and adolescents think that they will have an accident if they do not count all the lampposts on their way to school. Or cannot leave the house unless they have washed their hands precisely twenty-five times. They suffer from OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which is an extremely stressful psychiatric disorder that affects between 0.25 and 4 per cent of all children.

    Fortunately, the treatment method — cognitive behavioural therapy — is both effective and well-documented. The hitherto largest research study of OCD treatment for children and adolescents aged 7-17 now shows that cognitive behavioural therapy also has a long-lasting effect. The Nordic research project, which involves researchers from Aarhus University and child and adolescent psychiatry clinics in Norway and Sweden, has shown that children and adolescents who benefited from the therapy were also free of patterns of compulsive behaviour and compulsive thoughts one year after the treatment ended.

    “The study makes clear that cognitive behavioural therapy reaches beyond the treatment period. This knowledge is important, both for the practitioners, but not least for the affected children and their families,” says Per Hove Thomsen, one of the researchers behind the study and professor at Aarhus University and consultant at the Centre for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Risskov. He is also the final author of the results, which have just been published in the scientific journal Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

    “OCD is a very difficult disorder which demands a colossal amount of the child in question. It is almost impossible to live a normal life as a child and teenager with a normal level of development, if you need to wash your hands a hundred times a day in a particular way in order not to be killed, which is something that compulsive thinking can dictate. For the same reason, early intervention is necessary before the disorder has disabling consequences in adulthood,” says Per Hove Thomsen.

    The children from the study were treated with cognitive behavioural therapy, which is a behavioural psychological treatment. Fundamentally it involves getting help to refrain from acting on compulsive thoughts and instead incorporating new thought patterns. The method also involves the whole family, as the effect is strengthened by the mother and father supporting the methods that the child is given to overcome the OCD.

    Furthermore, according to Psychologist and PhD David R.M.A Højgaard, who is the lead author of the scientific article, once the treatment is completed a watchful eye should still be kept on the child or teenager.

    “The results of the study indicate that to maintain the effect in the longer term you need to remain aware and detect OCD symptoms so you can nip them in the bud before they develop and become worse. This is done by offering booster sessions to refresh the treatment principles and thereby prevent OCD from getting a foothold again,” says David R.M.A Højgaard.

    The collaboration with the Norwegian and Swedish child and adolescent psychiatry clinics has added knowledge that can be significant for the organisation of OCD treatment.

    “The biggest challenge facing OCD treatment is that there are not enough specially trained therapists and treatment facilities to meet needs. The study shows that if the level of training of therapists is consolidated and if supervision is provided, then it is possible to provide treatment in an isolated corner of Norway that is just as effective as the treatment provided at a university clinic,” says Per Hove Thomsen.

    The study is part of The Nordic Long Term OCD Treatment Study (NordLOTS) and comprises 269 children and adolescents with OCD from Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

    The results showed that 92 per cent of the 177 children and teenagers who immediately benefited from the treatment were still healthy and free of symptoms one year after the treatment ended. Of these, 78 per cent had no clinical symptoms of OCD.


  7. New insights into why sleep is good for our memory

    November 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of York press release:

    Researchers at the University of York have shed new light on sleep’s vital role in helping us make the most of our memory.

    Sleep, they show, helps us to use our memory in the most flexible and adaptable manner possible by strengthening new and old versions of the same memory to similar extents.

    The researchers also demonstrate that when a memory is retrieved — when we remember something — it is updated with new information present at the time of remembering. The brain appears not to ‘overwrite’ the old version of the memory, but instead generates and stores multiple (new and old) versions of the same experience.

    The results of the research, carried out at York’s Sleep, Language and Memory (SLAM) Laboratory, are presented in the journal Cortex today.

    Lead researcher Dr Scott Cairney of York’s Department of Psychology said: “Previous studies have shown sleep’s importance for memory. Our research takes this a step further by demonstrating that sleep strengthens both old and new versions of an experience, helping us to use our memories adaptively.

    “In this way, sleep is allowing us to use our memory in the most efficient way possible, enabling us to update our knowledge of the world and to adapt our memories for future experiences.”

    In the study, two groups of subjects learned the location of words on a computer screen. In a test phase, participants were presented with each of the words in the centre of the screen and had to indicate where they thought they belonged.

    One group then slept for 90 minutes while a second group remained awake before each group repeated the test. In both groups, the location recalled at the second test was closer to that recalled at the first test than to the originally-learned location, indicating that memory updating had taken place and new memory traces had been formed.

    However, when comparing the sleep and wake groups directly, the locations recalled by the sleep group were closer in distance to both the updated location (i.e. previously retrieved) and the original location, suggesting that sleep had strengthened both the new and old version of the memory.

    Corresponding author Professor Gareth Gaskell of York’s Department of Psychology said: “Our study reveals that sleep has a protective effect on memory and facilitates the adaptive updating of memories.

    “For the sleep group, we found that sleep strengthened both their memory of the original location as well as the new location. In this way, we were able to demonstrate that sleep benefits all the multiple representations of the same experience in our brain.”

    The researchers point out that although this process helps us by allowing our memories to adapt to changes in the world around us, it can also hinder us by incorporating incorrect information into our memory stores. Over time, our memory will draw on both accurate and inaccurate versions of the same experience, causing distortions in how we remember previous events.

    The study builds on a research model created by Ken Paller, Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, USA, an eminent researcher in the field of memory and a co-author on this study.

    The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).


  8. Study suggests cognitive training enhanced innovative thinking and brain networks in older adults

    by Ashley

    From the Center for BrainHealth press release:

    Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas have demonstrated in a pilot study that cognitive training improves innovative thinking, along with corresponding positive brain changes, in healthy adults over the age of 55.

    The study, published recently in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, reveals that a specific strategic cognitive training program enhanced innovation in healthy adults. Performance was measured by an individual’s ability to synthesize complex information and generate a multitude of high-level interpretations.

    “Middle-age to older adults should feel empowered that, in many circumstances, they can reverse decline and improve innovative thinking,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, Center for BrainHealth founder and chief director and lead author of the study. “Innovative cognition — the kind of thinking that reinforces and preserves complex decision-making, intellect and psychological well-being — does not need to decline with age. This study reveals that cognitive training may help enhance cognitive capacities and build resilience against decline in healthy older adults.”

    The SMART program — Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training — was developed at the Center for BrainHealth. It focuses on learning strategies that foster attention, reasoning and broad-based perspective-taking.

    Center for BrainHealth researchers conducted a randomized pilot trial and compared the effect of SMART to aerobic exercise training (known to be good for brain health) and control subjects on innovative cognition. The SMART program was conducted one hour per week for 12 weeks with 2 hours of homework each week. The 58 participants were assessed at baseline-, mid- and post-training using innovative cognition measures and functional MRI, a brain scanning technology that reveals brain activity.

    “In addition to evaluating the effects of the cognitive training, this study also provided an opportunity to test a reliable assessment tool to measure innovative cognition, which has been relatively neglected due to the complexity of quantifying innovative thinking,” Chapman said.

    The 19 participants in the cognitive reasoning training group (SMART) showed significant gains pre- to post-training in high-quality innovation performance, improving their performance by an average of 27 percent from baseline to mid- and post-training periods on innovative cognition measures. The physical exercise and control groups did not show improvement. These positive gains in the reasoning training group corresponded to increased connectivity among brain cells in the central executive network of the brain, an area responsible for innovative thinking.

    “Advances in the field of MRI are allowing us to measure different aspects of brain function,” said Dr. Sina Aslan, an imaging specialist at the Center for BrainHealth. “Through this research, we are able to see that higher activity in the central executive network corresponded to improved innovation. These findings suggest that staying mentally active not only mitigates cognitive decline, but also has the potential to restore creative thinking, which is typically lost with aging.”

    While further research is needed to establish how to ensure the benefit persists, Chapman is encouraged by the results.

    “Reasoning training offers a promising cost-effective intervention to enhance innovative cognition — one of the most valued capacities and fruitful outputs of the human mind at any age.”

    The work was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Health and by grants from the T. Boone Pickens Foundation, the Lyda Hill Foundation and Dee Wyly Distinguished University Endowment.


  9. New player in Alzheimer’s disease pathogenesis identified

    by Ashley

    From the Sanford-Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute press release:

    Scientists at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) have shown that a protein called membralin is critical for keeping Alzheimer’s disease pathology in check. The study, published in Nature Communications, shows that membralin regulates the cell’s machinery for producing beta-amyloid (or amyloid beta, A?), the protein that causes neurons to die in Alzheimer’s disease.

    “Our results suggest a new path toward future treatments for Alzheimer’s disease,” says Huaxi Xu, Ph.D., the Jeanne and Gary Herberger Leadership Chair of SBP’s Neuroscience and Aging Research Center. “If we can find molecules that modulate membralin, or identify its role in the cellular protein disposal machinery known as the endoplasmic reticulum-associated degradation (ERAD) system, this may put the brakes on neurodegeneration.”

    ERAD is the mechanism by which cells get rid of proteins that are folded incorrectly in the ER. It also controls the levels of certain mature, functional proteins. Xu’s team found that one of the fully formed, working proteins that ERAD regulates is a component of an enzyme called gamma secretase that generates A?.

    This discovery helps fill in the picture of how Alzheimer’s disease, an incredibly complicated disorder influenced by many genetic and environmental factors. No therapies have yet been demonstrated to slow progression of the disease, which affects around 47 million people worldwide. Until such drugs are developed, patients face a steady, or sometimes rapid, decline in memory and reasoning.

    Memory loss in Alzheimer’s results from the toxic effects of A?, which causes connections between neurons to break down. A? is created when gamma secretase cuts the amyloid precursor protein into smaller pieces. While A? is made in all human brains as they age, differences in the rate at which it is produced and eliminated from the brain and in how it affects neurons, means that not everyone develops dementia.

    “We were interested in membralin because of its genetic association with Alzheimer’s, and in this study we established the connection between membralin and Alzheimer’s based on findings from the laboratory of a former colleague at SBP, Professor Dongxian Zhang,” Xu explains. “That investigation showed that eliminating the gene for membralin leads to rapid motor neuron degeneration, but its cellular function wasn’t clear.”

    Using proteomics, microscopic analysis, and functional assays, the group provided definitive evidence that membralin functions as part of the ERAD system. Later, they found that membralin-dependent ERAD breaks down a protein that’s part of the gamma secretase enzyme complex, and that reducing the amount of membralin in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s exacerbates neurodegeneration and memory problems.

    “Our findings explain why mutations that decrease membralin expression would increase the risk for Alzheimer’s,” Xu comments. “This would lead to an accumulation of gamma secretase because its degradation is disabled, and the gamma-secretase complex would then generate more A?. Those mutations are rare, but there may be other factors that cause neurons to make less membralin.”

    Xu and colleagues also observed lower levels of membralin, on average, in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s than in unaffected individuals, demonstrating the relevance of their findings to humans.

    “Previous studies have suggested that ERAD contributes to many diseases where cells become overwhelmed by an irregular accumulation of proteins, including Alzheimer’s,” says Xu. “This study provides conclusive, mechanistic evidence that ERAD plays an important role in restraining Alzheimer’s disease pathology. We now plan to search for compounds that enhance production of membralin or the rate of ERAD to test whether they ameliorate pathology and cognitive decline in models of Alzheimer’s. That would further support the validity of this mechanism as a drug target.”


  10. Study suggests reasons why head and face pain causes more suffering

    by Ashley

    From the Duke University press release:

    Hate headaches? The distress you feel is not all in your — well, head. People consistently rate pain of the head, face, eyeballs, ears and teeth as more disruptive, and more emotionally draining, than pain elsewhere in the body.

    Duke University scientists have discovered how the brain’s wiring makes us suffer more from head and face pain. The answer may lie not just in what is reported to us by the five senses, but in how that sensation makes us feel emotionally.

    The team found that sensory neurons that serve the head and face are wired directly into one of the brain’s principal emotional signaling hubs. Sensory neurons elsewhere in the body are also connected to this hub, but only indirectly.

    The results may pave the way toward more effective treatments for pain mediated by the craniofacial nerve, such as chronic headaches and neuropathic face pain.

    “Usually doctors focus on treating the sensation of pain, but this shows the we really need to treat the emotional aspects of pain as well,” said Fan Wang, a professor of neurobiology and cell biology at Duke, and senior author of the study. The results appear online Nov. 13 in Nature Neuroscience.

    Pain signals from the head versus those from the body are carried to the brain through two different groups of sensory neurons, and it is possible that neurons from the head are simply more sensitive to pain than neurons from the body.

    But differences in sensitivity would not explain the greater fear and emotional suffering that patients experience in response to head-face pain than body pain, Wang said.

    Personal accounts of greater fear and suffering are backed up by functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which shows greater activity in the amygdala — a region of the brain involved in emotional experiences — in response to head pain than in response to body pain.

    “There has been this observation in human studies that pain in the head and face seems to activate the emotional system more extensively,” Wang said. “But the underlying mechanisms remained unclear.”

    To examine the neural circuitry underlying the two types of pain, Wang and her team tracked brain activity in mice after irritating either a paw or the face. They found that irritating the face led to higher activity in the brain’s parabrachial nucleus (PBL), a region that is directly wired into the brain’s instinctive and emotional centers.

    Then they used methods based on a novel technology recently pioneered by Wang’s group, called CANE, to pinpoint the sources of neurons that caused this elevated PBL activity.

    “It was a eureka moment because the body neurons only have this indirect pathway to the PBL, whereas the head and face neurons, in addition to this indirect pathway, also have a direct input,” Wang said. “This could explain why you have stronger activation in the amygdala and the brain’s emotional centers from head and face pain.”

    Further experiments showed that activating this pathway prompted face pain, while silencing the pathway reduced it.

    “We have the first biological explanation for why this type of pain can be so much more emotionally taxing than others,” said Wolfgang Liedtke, a professor of neurology at Duke University Medical Center and a co-author on Wang’s paper, who is also treating patients with head- and face-pain. “This will open the door toward not only a more profound understanding of chronic head and face pain, but also toward translating this insight into treatments that will benefit people.”

    Chronic head-face pain such cluster headaches and trigeminal neuralgia can become so severe that patients seek surgical solutions, including severing the known neural pathways that carry pain signals from the head and face to the hindbrain. But a substantial number of patients continue to suffer, even after these invasive measures.

    “Some of the most debilitating forms of pain occur in the head regions, such as migraine,” said Qiufu Ma, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the study. “The discovery of this direct pain pathway might provide an explanation why facial pain is more severe and more unpleasant.”

    Liedtke said targeting the neural pathway identified here can be a new approach toward developing innovative treatments for this devastating head and face pain.