Shining a light on pain

Dr Jason Potas

Suffering a spinal cord injury is obviously a horrific thing for anyone to go through. But as if that isn’t bad enough, some people then go on to develop a hypersensitivity to pain called allodynia.

“It’s a kind of neuropathic pain,” explains Dr Jason Potas from the ANU Medical School and John Curtin School of Medical Research.

“The pain shouldn’t actually be there, because it’s not being caused by painful stimulation.

“Even just something brushing against your skin can be perceived as excruciating for people who suffer from this condition.”

Dr Potas has found something which might be able to help: a red light.

“It’s not any kind of special red light. It’s just a light… that’s red.

“Others in our department had found that red light has protective effects against light damage in the retina, so I thought, why don’t we see what this red light does in other nervous injury models?”

The results, he says, are “pretty cool”.

“The red light does weird things, which we don’t really understand, but basically it reduces the pain.

“After having an injury, the pro-inflammatory cells come in, and they start removing all the stuff that’s dying and shouldn’t be there. But after a period of time, they have to be limited because they start damaging healthy tissue.

“So you get this second wave of anti-inflammatory cells that come in and modulate the pro-inflammatory ones. The red light is actually making the anti-inflammatory cells come in early—but we don’t know why or how!”

Dr Potas is working with students from ANU PhD and Master of Neuroscience programs to find out exactly what “weird things” the red light is doing, and how it might become a treatment for neuropathic pain.

“Projects like this are challenging as they require you to be married to the project. But they’re very rewarding.

“Watching students starting out who have absolutely no idea of what they’re capable of, then finishing their Masters as an expert in their area, is incredibly satisfying.”