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Research

Research

Overview

Somatosensation is the sense of the soma or body. These include nociception (noxious thermal, mechanical, and chemical pain), thermosensation (temperature), pruriception (itch), mechanosensation (touch), and proprioception (sense of limb and body position). Our understanding of how these senses are integrated and relayed through the dorsal spinal cord is rapidly progressing due to the advent of multiple genetic manipulations and optogenetic/chemogenetic techniques in mice.

Using a combination of molecular, electrophysiological, and behavioral methods, we aim to understand the circuits that form the basis of somatosensory-motor behavior. Specifically, we are interested in how somatosensory information processed in the spinal cord leads to coordinated motor output, how these somatosensory pathways develop, and how network activity leads to the perception of different psychophysical manifestations of somatosensory input.

Proprioception

Proprioception, the sense of limb and body position, generates a body map that is critical to generating proper motor output. Despite decades of research, it is still unknown precisely how this sense allows us to achieve controlled motor function.

Currently, we are focused on understanding the logic of proprioceptive circuits relayed through the spinal cord. Previously, we uncovered a novel route for proprioceptive information using molecular genetic tools in mice. We are disentangling the contribution of distinct populations of cerebellar projecting neurons in the spinal cord and medulla to understand their role in mediating proprioceptive perception.

Diagram of neural loop between peripheral sensory neurons and CNS motor control
Propriocreptive-motor pathways.

Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP)

Painful conditions are a huge medical burden with 100 million Americans suffering from chronic pain (Inst. of Med. Report from the Committee on Advancing Pain Research, Care, and Education, 2011). However, alternatives to opiate and NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) analgesics are lacking. One avenue to develop new analgesics can be taken by studying the genetic and molecular mechanisms that underlie conditions of painlessness. We are creating a mouse model of PRDM12-associated congenital insensitivity to pain (Chen et al., Nat. Genet., 2015) with the goal of understanding the molecular mechanisms that cause this disease. By understanding the pathways that mediate nociceptive sensory development and maintenance, we aim to identify molecular targets for the development of new analgesics.