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Student Awarded NSF Travel Award to Study Pain

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Students often associate studying with pain, but TU doctoral student, Edward Lannon studies pain. Lannon’s research in pain not only earned him a National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellowship, but also, he recently won an NSF travel award. “In undergrad, I was very interested in psychophysiology, but I never thought I would be studying pain,” Lannon said.Edward Lannon on bench

The University of Tulsa has a state-of-the-art psychophysiology laboratory for affective neuroscience, but students nicknamed it the “Pain Lab.” With the help of Jamie Rhudy, professor of psychology and director of the lab, Lannon developed a proposed study on reactions to pain, which led to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

“Students often pair physiology with their research. They can use the Pain Lab for trauma and pain, suicide and pain, headaches and pain. We meld together another aspect of what they want to study,” Rhudy explained.

Lannon researched the question:  If a subject watches the painful stimuli, is the pain less intense? The Pain Lab tests discomfort levels with electric, pressure, heat and cold; and if subjects look at the pinpoint of pain, they can see no damage to the skin. Lannon believes it is less painful when looking at the stimuli because “You get that feedback loop,” and you see your skin is fine.

For his NSF Travel award, Lannon will go to Denmark to take his research a step further. Pain processing can be measured by the size of a protective reflex. Lannon gave an example; “That is the reflex when you touch a hot stove your hand automatically moves out of the way.” If people are already in an anxious state, their reflex to pain will be more dramatic and larger. The implications could “give us an idea to see if these measures can predict if people may one day develop chronic pain,” Lannon said.

Lannon will spend seven months in Denmark collecting data to finalize his dissertation. The Denmark pain lab has the capacity to deliver painful stimuli at multiple sites on the sole of the foot and measure the physiological reaction to each one. Rhudy explained that by using this technique, “Edward can develop unique skills to measure reflex receptive fields, that no one else in the world does.”

The NSF Travel Award felt like “a long shot,” Lannon confided.

“A lot of stars have to align for this to happen. They only give out a handful of these a year, but there also has to be a host site in another country that will host a fellow up to 12 months and provide additional funding on their end.” Rhudy said.

Although Lannon is eager to immerse himself in Denmark’s culture, he has one main goal: “What I am going to contribute is to see if anxiety, a threatening emotional state, can make these reflex receptive fields grow bigger,” Lannon said. “If anxiety can do that, it might lead to some mechanism for the development of chronic pain.”