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Renowned researcher to lead new multidisciplinary pain program at NIH

Posted on July 12, 2012

Catherine Bushnell, Ph.D., an internationally recognized pain and neuroscience researcher, has been appointed scientific director of a new research program focusing on the role of the brain in perceiving, modifying, and managing pain. Based in the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of the National Institutes of Health, this collaborative effort will complement basic science and clinical research efforts of other ongoing intramural neuroscience, imaging, and mental and behavioral health research programs.

According to the Institute of Medicine, in the United States, more than 100 million people suffer from chronic pain conditions, and it is estimated to cost nearly $635 billion annually for treatment and lost productivity. While tremendous progress has been made in drug treatment of acute pain, there are pressing needs for better understanding and treatments for chronic pain.

"Dr. Bushnell’s work has profoundly changed the ways in which we understand and study this very important problem,” said NCCAM Director Josephine P. Briggs, M.D. “Under her leadership, this program will continue to work toward the development of better ways to safely and more effectively treat chronic pain, and advance research on the intersection and integration of pharmacological and non-pharmacological approaches."

Research projects will include investigating the role of the brain in pain processing and control, and how factors such as emotion, attention, environment, and genetics affect pain perception. The program will also explore how chronic pain produces changes in the brain that can modify how the brain reacts to pain medications like opioids.

"Dr. Bushnell is a pioneer in the field of pain research, and NIH is extremely fortunate to have her leading this research program," said Michael Gottesman, deputy director for intramural research. "She and her team will add a novel and important component to NIH’s overall intramural neuroscience research community."

Dr. Bushnell comes to NIH from McGill University in Montreal, where she was the Harold Griffith Professor of Anesthesia and professor in dentistry and neurology. Dr. Bushnell’s research interests include brain mechanisms of pain processing, psychological modulation of pain, and brain changes in chronic pain patients. Recent research projects utilize brain imaging and psychophysical testing to study the neural basis of pain processing.

"I am honored to have been selected to collaborate and work with one of the strongest neuroscience research programs in the world," Dr. Bushnell said. "It is an exciting and promising time in the field of pain research and I look forward to strengthening our understanding of the mechanisms and modulation of pain."

Dr. Bushnell just finished a term as president of the Canadian Pain Society and is treasurer of the International Association for the Study of Pain. She was director of the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain at McGill from 2003 to 2009. In 2009, she was awarded a senior Canada Research Chair in Clinical Pain. Dr. Bushnell’s scientific work has been recognized internationally, as demonstrated by her receipt of lifetime achievement awards from both the American Pain Society and the Canadian Pain Society. She began her scientific career at NIH in 1976, when she joined the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, then known as the National Institute of Dental Research, as a psychologist exploring the psychological aspects of pain processing. Dr. Bushnell received a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the American University in Washington, D.C. in 1977 and postdoctoral training in neurophysiology at NIH. She has authored more than 100 publications in the field.

The program will be the focus of NCCAM's Division of Intramural Research, located on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md.

The mission of NCCAM is to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and alternative medicine interventions and their roles in improving health and health care. For additional information, call NCCAM’s Clearinghouse toll free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit the NCCAM Web site at nccam.nih.gov. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.