A new knowledge translation approach: Dr. Karen Davis discusses her recent TED-Ed video ‘How does your brain respond to pain?’

A new knowledge translation approach: Dr. Karen Davis discusses her recent TED-Ed video ‘How does your brain respond to pain?’

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By: Kasey Hemington

Dr. Karen Davis is Head of the Division of Brain, Imaging & Behaviour – Systems Neuroscience at Toronto Western Hospital and world-renowned for her research on the central mechanisms of pain. Recently, she worked with TED-Ed to create a TED-Ed Original lesson: an educational video professionally animated through a collaboration with Animator Brent Underhill. You can find her lesson here at http://ed.ted.com/lessons/how-does-your-brain-respond-to-pain-karen-d-davis including the video and associated content: quizzes, additional resources and discussion questions. TED-Ed is the educational initiative of the non-profit organization TED, and aims to expand on the TED mission of ‘spreading great ideas’ by creating short educational videos aimed at teachers and learners. I sat down with Dr. Davis to discuss the creation of the video and her passion for knowledge translation encompassing pain.


IMS Magazine: How did the idea to create the video come about?

KD: I was selected as one of six 2013-2014 Fellows for The Mayday Fund’s ‘Mayday Pain & Society Fellowship: A Media and Policy Initiative’.  The Mayday Fund is a foundation based in New York dedicated to alleviating pain, so the fellowship was established to train clinicians, scientists and legal scholars to communicate effectively about their work and the field of pain management. One part of the fellowship training is defining a project you will work on for six months.
One theme of the project I defined had to do with the neuroethics of developing brain imaging tools for pain diagnostics. The other theme was to disseminate the concepts that first, pain is subjective, and second, that there is a wide variety of pain sensitivities and experiences. These two themes culminate in the fact that a one-size fits all model of pain management is not effective for many types of pain, and this was the basis for the creation of the TED-Ed video.


IMS Magazine: Why is it important to educate people about pain?

KD: It’s important for doctors and caregivers to understand that what the patient reports is really what they are experiencing, and it’s important for patients to know that their pain is real. The issue of patients malingering or faking pain is really played up. It’s more prevalent in the United States because of issues with health insurance. That’s why I also enjoy being involved in discussion with legal actors; because they don’t know whether to accept pain reports as being real or not and they’re interested in having an objective measure.


IMS Magazine: Tell us about the Mayday Pain and Society Project.

KD: Part of the fellowship was an intense training week in Washington DC by a team from Burness Communications. We were able to develop our projects, practice being interviewed, and learn how to get our message across. We had someone from the Huffington Post come and teach us how to blog, and someone from the New York Times teach us about writing op-eds, and journalists from the BBC and the National Public Radio help us with interview skills. We also had someone from TED-Ed come and teach us how to tell a story. I decided to take a long shot and go for the TED-Ed animation!


IMS Magazine: What’s the process for creating a video with TED-Ed and what was it like working with an animator to communicate your ideas?

KD: TED-Ed is relatively new. A lot of people don’t know that it’s all animation. And it’s not just video content – I had to develop multiple choice questions related to the video as well, for example. People can go through the questions themselves or educators can take them into the classroom, or modify them to fit their own lesson plans. Right now I have around 500 000 views of the video on Youtube, but also 3000 questions answered! There’s also links on the site to additional resources including findings my group has published.


I created the script for the video, and I had a story line and set of visuals in mind. At TED-Ed, they first give the script to the animator without my ideas for visuals, so they have the freedom to come up with what they think will fit the script. He [Animator Brent Underhill] wasn’t familiar with animating scientific content, so he came up with a completely different approach. It took me a while to understand the way he approached animating the script because it was a lot more abstract and conceptual, but he was right; I think it made it much more accessible to a broader audience.


IMS Magazine: What do you hope people take away from the video?

KD: Pain is experienced differently by different people, and people balance pain with other cognitive and emotional demands differently. All of this is represented by different networks in the brain. We now know that some of these networks are malleable; part of the hope for the future is that we are able to manipulate these brain networks in pain management.


The bottom line has to do with personalized medicine. There are a variety of invasive and non-invasive approaches to pain management, and some may depend on an individual’s brain circuitry and how they cope with things. Understanding the networks involved may lead to different surgical or brain stimulation targets for different people.


IMS Magazine: How closely does the content reflect your own research?

Almost of the content in the video is directly based on my group’s research, with some background content added in. I actually started with a talk I’d given at a conference as the framework for the video. We’ve recently published about the variable effects of distraction on pain and the tendency to mindwander during pain and how this relates to brain circuitry, which are key concepts in the TED-Ed lesson.


IMS Magazine: How does this work contribute to your knowledge translation goals?

It’s been tremendous. The video has hit many different targets for knowledge translation. In addition to being seen by hundreds of thousands of members of the general public, I’ve disseminated it to different societies – the International Association for the Study of Pain, for example – in order to reach my own peer group as well. It’s also being used as a teaching tool in undergraduate classrooms.


On the clinical side, I’ve had clinical colleagues show it to patients in order to help open up the discussion about what pain is. A lot of people feel like it’s their fault for feeling pain. Being educated can take away that stigma. Patients have also been sharing the video themselves with family and friends so they can better understand what they are going through.


Finally, through developing the video I’ve been able to reach policy makers and a legal audience. We need to get the message across that developing a diagnostic tool for pain is a difficult task because of the variability in pain responses.


IMS Magazine: What advice would you give to other IMS researchers about creating a similar knowledge translation tool?

It’s a great opportunity to get your message out, and the process really helps you better understand your own science. Many researchers have opportunities to do media training while working at the University of Toronto and they should take advantage of this. Learning how to communicate your work succinctly and clearly can help you convey the importance of what you do to everyone, whether it be in grant writing or explaining your lab to potential new graduate students.