Students learn how the brain receives pain

Amber Harris Bozer, Ph.D, an assistant professor from the department of psychological sciences at Tarleton State University gives a lecture in the BSB. Jason Pedreros | Multimedia journalist

By Madalyn Watson | Reporter

The psychology and neuroscience department hosted Amber Harris Bozer, Ph.D, assistant professor from the department of psychological sciences at Tarleton State University, on Friday. Bozer’s lecture titled, “Pain, the Brain and Approach-Avoidance” was held from 12:20 p.m. to 1:20 p.m. in the BSB.

Joaquin Lugo, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, introduced Bozer.

“[Bozer’s] work is in pain processing, but she also has a line of work where she is looking at more of an undergraduate research base as well,” Lugo said.

Bozer began her presentation by explaining the differences between pain and chronic pain.

“The goal in pain research is not to get rid of pain; pain is adaptive, we need pain to signal to us that there is danger, right? But whenever that pain becomes chronic, it’s twelve weeks or longer — or disproportionate to the the stimulus, for example — that’s when it’s maladaptive,” Bozer said.

Bozer explained that chronic pain is inescapable and it follows those who have it throughout their everyday life. These competing motivational drives — the want to avoid pain, but the want for positive rewards like food or money — are a focus of her research.

“We approach an aversive stimulus such as pain in order to obtain a reward, like food for example,” Bozer said. “Reward is also contingent on what that individual perceives as rewarding.”

Bozer accredited her interest in approach-avoidance, which is where a goal is seen as having positive and negative outcomes at the same time, to pain research started when she was a doctorate student in a lab at University of Texas at Arlington. At UT Arlington, she did a series of studies which involved placing rats in models where they would have to make decisions about motivating drives while facing pain.

The lab Bozer works in has been open for about a year and a half and is researching the brain activity in humans when placed in approach-avoidance situations. By measuring the prefrontal asymmetry in the brain, they are capable of understanding how the brain responds to a new stimulus.

“We hypothesized that we would be able to see some differences in prefrontal asymmetry during the pain approach-avoidance decision making tasks,” Bozer said.

The lab has 31 faculty and students participating in the study, 14 with chronic and 17 with no chronic pain, who inform the lab about the amount of pain they experience on a given day. They fill out the McGill pain questionnaire that asks them to rate words that describe their pain on a scale of one to four, one being none and four being severe. Then, the form asks them to rate their emotional response to pain on the same scale.

“The pain group exhibited significantly higher sensory scores on that dimension as well as present pain and intensity as you would expect in comparison to a control group of individuals who don’t report any pain. But we did not find a difference in emotional dimension, which is rather surprising — you typically find that in people who report ongoing pain,” Bozer said.

Another similar experiment the laboratory has been working on records the brain activity of people who choose to approach or avoid hypothetical stimuli based on their low, medium and high amounts of pain or money they would receive. The amount of pain or money is not clarified, which allows the subjects to assign amounts to each based on their personal situations.

“[Although] we hypothesized that individuals who had chronic pain would avoid pain stimuli more, the pain [and] no pain groups are not different for prefrontal asymmetry, but everybody is different based on whether or not they’re viewing a low threat stimulus or a high threat stimulus,” Bozer said.

This test led Bozer and the rest of the lab team to conclude that there needs to be a change in the behavioral profile on chronic pain and there needs to be a focus on approach-avoidance profiling of behavior.

Bozer ended the lecture by explaining what the lab was currently working on. Their current experiments include adding more trials to their data, separating people with chronic pain who use opiates and don’t use opiates and researching how marijuana might change brain activity in people with chronic pain.

After finishing the lecture, Bozer answered questions from the audience.

“Would you like to eventually differentiate different kinds of chronic pain between inflammatory or ones that are [simultaneously present with] cancer? Or do you expect to see differences there,” Seattle graduate student Maddie Larson said.

“There are some differences, but pain is pain when you’re at the level of the brain,” Bozer said.

For more information on her Neuroscience Lab, visit Bozer Neuroscience Lab on Facebook.