Frank Porreca, PhD, Professor of Pharmacology and Anesthesiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine - Tucson, has been awarded a 5 year, $2.5 Million RO1 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, NIH, to study Brain Reward Circuits and Relief of Ongoing Pain.
Although remarkable advances have been made in understanding the neurobiology of pain, few new medicines have been introduced to clinical practice. Professor Frank Porreca and his research group from the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Arizona have been exploring new preclinical measures that may better reflect features of the human experience of pain and that can be used to find new therapies.
Pain is fundamentally unpleasant and this feature of pain is clinically most relevant. It is the unpleasantness of pain that allows learning to avoid situations in which injury may occur. However, such affective (aversive) dimensions of pain have been difficult to study preclinically in non-verbal animals. Working with Drs. Edita Navratilova and Jennifer Xie, the Porreca laboratory has focused on the motivational drive to seek relief of pain (safety) as a way to capture and study mechanisms of pain aversiveness. The studies have used operant conditioning and the principles of negative reinforcement to assess affective aspects of pain in laboratory animals. Operant behaviors allow investigation of brain circuits that underlie motivational aspects of pain and the reward that follows from relief of aversive states such as pain. Neural circuits in the brain are activated by rewards and produce pleasant and positive feelings that reinforce behaviors that increase our ability to survive. The group has demonstrated that treatments that relieve the aversiveness of pain result in activation of the same reward circuits and reinforce behaviors that result in relief of pain. The novel demonstration of pain relief as a reward provides an entirely new way to discover medicines for patients.
Dr. Porreca’s lab studies circuits mediating pain in the brain and spinal cord. He is the PI on an additional 3 funded R01s, as well as the PI on a Project in the Program Project Grant with Professor Victor Hruby. He has held uninterrupted NIH funding for his laboratory for 28 years, spanning the time he has been at the University of Arizona. He was the Founder’s Day Speaker at the College of Medicine in 2001.
He contributes to teaching in the Medical Pharmacology program as well as a variety of service activities for the College of Medicine. He currently works with one Research Professor, two research scientists, four postdoctoral fellows, two graduate students, and three visiting research fellows. He has trained 26 Ph.D. students and 10 M.S. students.