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The Prince of Pain
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The Prince of Pain
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In a classic 1965 Science paper, a pair of researchers named Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall proposed an answer. Perhaps, they reasoned, pain signals compete with other nerve impulses to pass through a kind of "gate" before reaching the brain. Sensations of touch move primarily along long nerve fibers, for example, which conduct impulses faster than the short fibers along which pain moves. Rubbing a wound may therefore block or close this gate so that the burning or stinging can't pass through -- thus soothing the pain. The authors speculated further that the brain continually mediates any experience of pain from above; that is, it may deaden the sting in some cases (during riotous battle, for instance) and amplify it in others (if a wound has been too long ignored). Pain, like most of life, is largely in the brain.

"The gate theory of pain was the single most influential piece of writing ever done in the field of pain, and it solidified my interest in this area," Liebeskind recalled, in an interview last June. "I think it was very exciting to me that this was sort of a new, open, virgin territory. I came to see that if I entered this field and did anything at all valuable it would have an impact because there was so little going on. And I wanted my work to have an impact."

It didn't happen overnight. His first five years at UCLA were full of false starts, even confusion about which questions to ask. He was a man in search of a good experiment and, in one of the all-time near misses, was almost denied tenure. "It was a very close call," remembers Bernie Weiner, a colleague who knew Liebeskind from graduate school. "It should make us think more about how fast we make these decisions and how long things take in science."

Finally, in the late '60s, the young UCLA professor and his first group of graduate students, using implanted electrodes to produce pain in the brains of rats, suddenly observed something bizarre. "A student named Tom Wolfe was conducting some studies on the difference between central pain (caused in the brain) and peripheral pain," recalls Huda Akil, then a lab post-doc and now a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Michigan. "And in the process, he stumbled onto the observation that there were brain sites that, when activated electrically, seemed to slow down the responses to peripheral pain. The rats behaved as if they felt no pain."

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