User Tools (skip):
Going beyond "Where does it hurt?"
Carly Simon may not have time for the pain, but Jeffrey Mogil does.
Mogil is a freshly repatriated Canadian, coming to McGill after several years spent studying and researching in the States. He is one of McGill's Canada Research Chairs, and the new E.P. Taylor Professor of Psychology, replacing McGill's now retired pain research pioneer Ronald Melzack. Mogil is busy in the lab and preparing an undergraduate course on behaviour genetics for next fall.
Call him a neurogeneticist or a pharmacogeneticist or a behavioural neuroscientist, but one thing's for certain: he's into pain.
"Pain is the number one reason people seek medical care," Mogil explains. "Pain is the health-related issue that people are most afraid of. If you have arthritis, your joints are degenerating, but what bothers you is the pain. Cancer sufferers are upset that they might die, but what they're really upset about is the cancer pain that they have to endure."
Mogil says that pain isn't often studied directly -- "the idea has always been that you treat the disease, and the pain will go away" -- because it's underappreciated as a health problem unto itself.
"In addition to being a symptom of any number of diseases," he says, "pain can be a disease in its own right. What we really should be treating, first and foremost, is the pain. We need to find better treatment of pain, treatment which works in more people more of the time, and more effectively."
And that's exactly what Mogil's research lab is trying to do, by investigating why individuals exhibit such extreme variability in pain sensitivity.
Why are headaches more painful for some people than others? Why do test subjects respond differently to the same pain stimuli? Why do some people have congenital insensitivity to pain? (A small percentage of the population feels neither acute nor chronic pain -- and usually die young as a result.) Why do other people suffer from untreatable chronic pain syndrome? Are there differences in how men and women experience pain?
Much of Mogil's work focuses on this last question. Flying in the face of popular opinion, he says that research shows women are slightly less tolerant of, and more sensitive to, pain than men.
"It's a small but fairly reliable difference," he says. "But there's another sex difference that I find much more interesting: our studies have shown that there are different genes associated with pain sensitivity in males and females. The difference is such that males and females feel pain using different mechanisms."
The reasons for this difference are still unclear (Mogil's pet theory is that the brain "piggybacks" pain-related circuits on top of pre-existing, reproduction-related circuits), but the discovery could change the face of pain treatment.
"If this turns out to be true, and such info can be used to make new pain pharmaceuticals, it's likely to result in having a completely different pill prescribed for men than for women. Today, you always prescribe the same drug to men and women. You might vary the dose, but -- except for something that's obviously sex-related, like menstrual pains -- it's always the same drug.
"But I really do see a day where there are, you know, blue pain pills and pink pain pills."