MRC Fellowship awarded to Cambridge neuroscientist for research into pain

Dr Flavia Mancini

Dr Flavia Mancini has been announced a Medical Research Council (MRC) Career Development Fellow and will establish her first independent research group, tasked with improving our understanding of the brain mechanisms that mediate pain.

Starting in April 2020, the aim of Dr Mancini’s Career Development Award is to understand how the brain computes and tries to control the evolution of pain over time. To do this, Dr Mancini  - who is based at Computational and Biological Learning, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge - will use a combination of mathematical models, behavioural and neuroimaging experiments in humans, to discover how the brain functions when we feel pain. 

Chronic pain disorders, such as back pain, affect one in five people and are the leading cause of disability in the world; musculoskeletal pain alone costs the UK healthcare system £10.2 billion per year.1

Dr Mancini said there are unresolved questions that urgently require answers in order to treat chronic pain effectively, a crucial one being how the feeling of pain arises from brain activity. 

“We understand very little about how the pain systems work in the brain, but I aim to help solve this problem by both developing and applying computational models of information processing to understand the link between human behaviour and neural activity in the brain and spine. This will allow me to determine how the brain controls pain,” she said.

“The brain does not passively receive information from the nerves, but rather interprets pain signals based on what it already knows, anticipating and trying to adjust its responses to what will happen next. I hypothesise that if the brain cannot accurately learn to predict how pain evolves over time, it might fail to regulate its response to pain signals effectively, thereby resulting in unnecessarily amplified pain. This hypothesis will be tested in healthy human participants and those with common clinical conditions, such as unexplained back pain and multiple mental health disorders.  

“Understanding how the brain controls pain will help shed light on the reasons why some people have a high risk of developing chronic pain; this new approach will yield quantitative measures that could be used to identify vulnerable patients, ideally before they develop chronic pain, and improve the efficacy of pain treatments.”


1 See: Pain as a Global Public Health Priority | Prevalence of chronic pain in the UK | ​The State of Musculoskeletal Health 2019


Reproduced courtesy of University of Cambridge, Department of Engineering

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