By Heather Rodriguez
Brain science is an increasingly in-demand field that merges psychology and biology, using the latest technology to study how we think, feel, and interact. In this series, we will highlight four faculty members from the College of Liberal Arts who specialize in this field.
These and other faculty members place Liberal Arts on the forefront of innovative and groundbreaking scientific discoveries.
Poverty can literally be a pain in the neck.
Vani Mathur, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, studies the pain disparities among people from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
For example, Mathur said, people of color and people of low socioeconomic status are more likely to experience chronic pain, which can include arthritis (the most common), migraines, injuries, sickle cell disease, and fibromyalgia, among other ailments. The reasons for this are varied, and include anything from access to quality healthcare to an economic need to continue working while injured.
“People experience pain unequally but people also experience the world unequally,” Mathur said. “There are things we could do on the social level that could greatly impact people’s suffering.”
Mathur conducts two categories of research: spontaneous pain in otherwise healthy people and spontaneous pain in people who suffer from chronic pain.
“The key question is what causes chronic pain,” Mathur said. “We don’t yet fully understand it. Some people have a very physical reason for their pain, but some have chronic pain and don’t know why.”
Research participants experience spontaneous (temporary and acute) pain using a mild heat stimulator, while Mathur studies their brain reactions with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures blood flow response.
“There’s not one location of the brain that’s responsible for pain,” she said. “We’re looking for how the pattern of brain activity varies between healthy patients and those with chronic pain.”
Mathur became interested in pain disparities research after seeing her mother, a former nurse who injured her back on the job, suffer for years with recurring pain.
“My mom was told by doctors that she was fine, so she worked with her injury for twelve years…until she couldn’t walk anymore,” she said. “She then lost her job, which led to depression, and depression can enhance pain. The mind and body are connected.”
Mathur said she’s happy to work in a college that promotes interdisciplinary research to find solutions to real-world problems. And to her, this problem is personal.
“Seeing how my mom’s pain affected her life, and seeing that there was not really treatment options, made me realize this is a big problem,” she said. “She was my initial and continuous inspiration.”
Assistant Professor Joseph Orr, who came to the Department of Psychology in 2016, researches the ways in which we shield our abstract goals, such as eating healthily, from environmental cues, such as walking past a dessert case.
Orr specifically researches the part of the brain called the frontal pole, located just behind the center of the forehead, which is thought to help us maintain multiple goals at once.
“This is the most evolutionarily advanced part of the brain in human beings. It’s much larger in humans than even in chimpanzees,” Orr said.
At one time, researchers believed that the sole purpose of the frontal pole was to help us think about the future. Only recently has it been shown to be involved in maintaining simultaneous goals.
“It’s been shown to be active when we’re multitasking, which is basically maintaining a goal of two tasks at once,” Orr said. “One goal may be in the background, but you’re still maintaining both of them. You have to decide when you want to switch from one goal to the next.”
If someone is easily distracted by environmental cues that run contrary to their goals, Orr said, there is less activation in the frontal pole. People who excel at maintaining their goals and aren’t easily distracted show higher activation of the frontal pole.
“We also know that the frontal pole is less active in people with certain types of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, ADHD, and possibly addiction, but we haven’t studied that yet,” he said.
Orr uses a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation, where electrodes are placed on a participant’s head and a small current of electricity is passed to the frontal pole to enhance its function. Once stimulated, the targeted part of the brain is activated for 90 minutes.
“We place them in an MRI machine to see how this stimulation is changing how their brain is functioning while they complete a goal-directed task,” Orr said. “We are hoping the preliminary results will show that stimulating the frontal pole will help you choose a task by enhancing your current goals.”
Orr hopes the outcome of his research will benefit society as a whole.
“We are trying to find out how the brain is supposed to work in functioning individuals, and until we do, we can’t understand how the brain is ‘broken’ in mental illness,” he said.