Luana Colloca, MD, PhD, MS, associate professor, University of Maryland School of Nursing (UMSON), has been awarded more than $3.6 million by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund the research project “Neural Correlates of Hypoalgesia Driven by Observation.”
The nation’s opioid epidemic has highlighted the increasing need for scientific knowledge about inhibiting neural pain as the foundation for low-risk, non-opioid-based pain interventions. Understanding humans’ propensity for social learning, Colloca and her team are the first to demonstrate that social observation can generate expectations about the effectiveness of treatment, which in turn can alter clinical responses. Discovering the underlying mechanisms of pain relief due to social observation can be a basis for interventions from cognitive behavioral therapy to virtual reality that can then be applied to acute and chronic pain management.
Colloca’s research is focused on understanding how social learning affects neural systems to enhance internal analgesic responses in the brain, release internal opioids in the brain (also called endorphins), potentially reducing reliance on opioids. The newly awarded NIH Research Project Grant seeks to generate research on the underlying mechanisms that can be used to develop easily implementable therapeutic strategies, such as video clips and virtual reality tools, for acute pain management. This is relevant in acute pain settings as an alternative to opioid therapy. The grant will provide $3,659,838 in funding over five years.
“Research in non-pharmacological pain management seeks to offer alternatives to pain treatments that carry severe side effects. This endeavor is of increasing importance as opioid addiction and deaths in the United States rise and as governmental agencies recommend health care practitioners and patients move away from opioid-based pain management,” Colloca said. “An approach to pain management that combines pain reduction related to social observation and virtual reality tools presents novel opportunities for reducing patient suffering and contributing to clinically relevant knowledge for future therapeutic approaches. The proposed research can be directly applied to developing easily implementable therapeutic strategies for acute pain management.”
Building upon years of experience in placebo research with University of Maryland, Baltimore collaborators experienced in brain mapping and pain research, Colloca and her team aim to discover how social observation can inhibit pain and serve as an alternative therapeutic treatment for pain.