The Prince of Pain
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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.
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."
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."
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."