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Does early-life pain create a susceptibility to chronic pain in later life?

UCVM's postdoctoral scholar Nikita Burke looks to the brain’s microglial cells for answers

Nikita Burke, PhD, has recently been awarded the Alberta Innovates Postdoctoral Scholarship for her work on pain research. Photo courtesy Alberta Innovates

As recently as the mid-1980s it was widely believed that preemies and newborns could not perceive pain, and medical procedures — including major surgeries — were routinely performed on days-old babies without anaesthesia.

Now, not only is it understood that babies can feel pain, but evidence is mounting that pain, infection, trauma or stress experienced very early in life can sometimes have profound consequences later on, including increased sensitivity to pain, chronic pain, inflammatory disease or even depression. 

Postdoctoral scholar Nikita Burke, PhD, of the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) is studying the link from early-life pain to altered sensitivity to pain in adolescence, and she has recently been awarded an Alberta Innovates Postdoctoral Scholarship for her work.

“The Alberta Innovates scholarship supports my research and broadens my experience outside the lab,” Burke says. “Opening the door to these training and mentorship opportunities is key at this time in my professional development.” 

“Alberta Innovates is proud to support the next generation of researchers,” says Reg Joseph, vice-president of health.  “The work that Dr. Burke is pursuing is a made-in-Alberta solution that will hopefully improve the lives of Albertans, and people around the world, who live with chronic pain.”

Microglia: architect of the developing nervous system

“There is a critical window very early in life where pain appears to have long-lasting impact,” Burke says. “The vast changes going on at that time in the developing spinal cord and brain could explain why a noxious event then can have long-term effects.”

It is as though neonatal pain changes the very blueprint of the central nervous system (CNS). So, it follows that for answers Burke is looking at the architect in charge of that blueprint, which in the case of the CNS is a type of cell called microglia.

Microglia are immune cells that are also instrumental in the development, repair and protection of the nervous system. Their dual role is especially interesting, as communication between the immune and nervous systems has been shown to be critical in the development of chronic pain.

To find out how microglia react and change in response to injury, Burke isolates the microglia of animal models. “We are looking at the microglia memory or footprint at the molecular level,” she says. “We look at altered structure and function, and whether certain genes are turned on or off in response to early life injury.”

Burke’s research has particular resonance in a world where 15 million babies are born prematurely each year, a number that is growing with medical advances. Those pre-term babies by necessity require more than 10 painful procedures each day. “With more and more babies exposed to pain early in life, the consequences can be quite profound,” she says.

Recruiting top talent

Burke, an Eyes High Postdoctoral Scholar, is a native of Ireland where she completed her PhD at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Her previous work, completed at the Universidad Complutense Madrid, showed that early-life stress resulted in increased nerve pain-related behaviour in adulthood.

She was drawn to the University of Calgary to work with HBI member Tuan Trang, PhD, and his research team who study pain, opioids and glia. “Canada is a world leader in pediatric pain research; the benefit of this lab in particular is we are equipped to look at the whole system from animal behaviour right down to activity at the molecular level,” Burke says.

“The Hotchkiss Brain Institute is an extremely supportive and collaborative training environment, and I thoroughly enjoy carrying out my research here.”

“Nikita has tremendous expertise in the pain research area, and she has been an amazing addition to our group,” says Trang, assistant professor in both the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the Cumming School of Medicine. “The Eyes High initiative has allowed us to recruit top talent, to bring a different perspective and expertise that complements existing skill sets on the team. Nikita is a great example of that.”

“Nikita’s work is an example of the kind of exciting discoveries that can be pursued in an interdisciplinary setting,” says Carolyn Emery, postdoctoral program director. “We strive to provide all of our postdoctoral scholars with training opportunities that facilitate this level of achievement, while providing mentorship and career guidance to prepare them for the future.”  

Multi-disciplinary significance

In addition to the Alberta Innovates postdoctoral fellowship, Burke’s work is supported by the Vi Riddell Children’s Pain Research Grant. Her research aligns with two of the university’s strategic research themes: Brain and Mental Health  and Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases.

As well, her work applies not only to human health, but also to animal health. “We are embedded in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, and our findings have important application there as well when you consider the early-life procedures required in the care of farm animals.”

Burke says, “If we learn that an early change in microglia does indeed trigger later susceptibility to chronic pain, that could lead to new treatments that are so important, because chronic pain not only dramatically affects quality of life, but has a massive cost and impact on society.”

Learn more about Alberta Innovates awards to more than 30 UCalgary scholars.

Visit the Alberta Innovates website for a full listing of Postgraduate funding and their areas of research.

Alberta Innovates delivers 21st century solutions to the most compelling challenges Albertans face. Building on our province’s strengths in environment, energy, health, food, fibre and emerging technology sectors, we work with our partners to diversify Alberta’s economy, improve our environmental performance, and enhance our well-being.

Through Alberta Innovates you can access technical expertise, the opportunity to establish new partnerships, and secure funding that will catalyze innovation. We support a broad range of research and innovation activity — from discovery to application.

Partner with us to innovate faster.