No Pain, No Gain

I went back to South Kensington again yesterday. After my trip to the Science Museum, I came back home, pottered around for a bit, and then went to the Science Museum’s Dana Centre.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t know much about Dana before I went there tonight. But the event, No Pain, No Gain, popped up on my twitter feed a couple of nights ago, and I thought, “Why not?” It looked interesting – pain is something we all experience, and with three different speakers, we were bound to be in for some fun.

The Dana Centre is very cute – not what I expected at all. What I expected was a lecture theatre or hall or stage or something more formal. Instead, there was d. cafe and a load of chairs, with some temporary staging for the speakers to sit on. It was very relaxed and informal, with people supping glasses of wine and positively taunting me with their chips (I resisted getting some – go me).

There was quite  a mixed bag in terms of audience members: some were obvious students (with varying degrees of eagerness), some were just Londonites looking for an alternative evening out. Some (as it transpired in the Q&A session following the talk) were even trained professionals: notably, there was a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist sitting across from me.

All in all, there was a really good atmosphere prior to the talk, so I settled down and prepared myself.

Promptly at 7pm, the speakers arrived on stage.

First, the facilitator Andrew Rice (Professor of Pain Research, Imperial College London) gave us a general introduction, with a brief overview of why people are interested in studying pain. There are obviously many different types of pain – acute, chronic, and then the weirder kinds like Phantom Limb pain and pain which causes pleasure (either inflicting or receiving it).

That over, he introduced the first speaker, Julie Keeble of King’s College London. She seemed to be full of nervous energy, which was quite exciting. What was more exciting was that she talked about her current research and clinical trials on TRPV1 blockers (TRPV1 is basically a protein channel that responds to noxious heat signals – in other words, when it gets activated and you feel a burning sensation!) She briefly summed up current drug treatments for pain, with the respective pros and cons. She drew attention to chronic pain problems, such as rheumatoid arthritis, and how the current drug treatments for this are not ideal. But if you can block the pain signals in the first place… A tricky balance: you don’t want to block ALL pain signals, otherwise you won’t realise when your cup of tea is too hot, and end up burning your throat. Hence the ongoing research. It sounds promising, and I hope to hear more soon.

Next up was another Imperial bod, Praveen Anand of the Imperial College London Pain Centre. His slides had far more neurosci jargon, and I think he may have tried to cover more bases than he had time allotted to him… But it was fascinating none the less. He brought to light some interesting factlets, like the multiple uses for some common SSRIs – not only do they treat depression, but they have some effectiveness in treating diabetic foot pain. Who knew? Well, he did, obviously… And, chillis activate the same nerve channels as heat signals. Whilst chillis don’t actual change the physical temperature of your mouth, they do provoke the same nerve patterns! The same is true for mint –> cold.

He briefly discussed congenital insensitivity to pain and erythromelalgia, but unhelpfully the facilitator and some of the “backstage crew” interrupted him a couple of times to ask him to wrap it up, which did distract me a little bit. I know why they were doing it, but it was a bit frustrating.

Finally, we had the lovely Katja Wiech from the University of Oxford. She was great fun: I have to be honest, I think she was my favourite speaker, but I may be slightly biased as she was the one talking about the psychology of pain. She looked at the subjectivity of painful experiences, and what a sense of control can do to our tolerance of pain. She has conducted fMRI studies of religious versus atheist subjects, and found significant differences between the distress experienced in either group when in pain. The data suggests that by “passing control” over the God, the religious participants where less distressed by pain than their atheist counterparts. Different areas in the brain are active whilst the participant is in control (or has given over control to someone they trust) than when they feel out of control of their pain. Weird.

After we’d done our clapping, there was then a half hour Q&A. Topics covered included the activity of synthetic drugs (and why more “messy” drugs like naturally derived opiates, cannabinoids etc. are more favourable), the gender divide on pain experience, brain plasticity and age, and… guess what…

I asked a question.

“Right at the beginning of the evening, you mentioned masochism but none of the speakers touched upon the subject at all. I was wondering if any of you had any insights into this phenomenon.”

And they did. It was wonderful, and they spent a fair amount of time discussing it. Apparently, it’s quite a hot topic at the moment, so I may have to do further reading, but research has shown that certain levels of pain do actually make pleasure centres in the brain fire – it’s not purely psychological, but may have basis in biology. A possible dissertation topic, perhaps?

A thoroughly good evening, and I’m sure I will go again. I even suggested possible future themes on my feedback form.

The Dana Centre is on Queen’s Gate, a stones throw from NHM and SciMus, in South Kensington. Most events are free, but you do need to book tickets in advance. There’s a handful of space-related talks coming up – not really my forté but I’m sure they’ll be bang on, if the talk I went to is anything to go by.

Oh, and who knew that NHM goes green during the night?

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