An interview with Dr. Jeffrey Mogil – IMS Scientific Day Speaker 2013

An interview with Dr. Jeffrey Mogil – IMS Scientific Day Speaker 2013

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By Yekta Dowlati

Dr. Jeffrey Mogil is known as a world leader in pain genetics. A native Torontonian, Mogil earned his B.Sc. (Honours) in Psychology at the University of Toronto in 1988. He had always thought that he would attend medical school until his fourth year of undergraduate studies, when he took a lab course in what would now be called behavioral neuroscience studying the reward system. He became interested in continuing on to graduate school and a career in research. As a result of one of his graduate school interviews with a scientist studying pain, he moved to California and earned his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from UCLA in 1993. “I ended up being a pain researcher quite randomly”, remarks Mogil. Afterwards, he moved to Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland to complete his postdoctoral fellowship before joining the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois. In 2011, his academic career brought him to McGill University where he currently is the E.P. Taylor Professor of Pain Studies and the Canada Research Chair in Genetics of Pain. He is the head of the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University, a world-leading centre in the field of pain research. He has made influential contributions to the field of pain genetics and is a well-recognized authority in the field of sex differences in pain and analgesia as well as algesiometric testing (measuring the degree of sensitivity to a painful stimulus) in laboratory mice.

Mogil defines pain as an unpleasant, simultaneous sensation and emotion that is caused by tissue damage or by stimulators that may not be currently damaging the tissue. Mogil’s fascinating discoveries on pain have made news around the world. One of his most significant findings was that red-haired women display increased analgesic responsiveness to the kappa-opioid drug, pentazocine, compared with other women and men. He has conducted extensive work on individual and sex differences in pain and analgesia. He showed that different genes are involved in processing pain in the male and female brain, a discovery that could ultimately lead to analgesic medications personalized to an individual’s genetic profile. Another significant achievement by Mogil includes exciting new evidence that mice have empathy for other mice in pain, a phenomenon known as “emotional contagion.”

In Mogil’s opinion, these new advancements in our understanding of pain will not affect current treatment strategies immediately because “you can’t make a treatment decision unless you can confidently predict which genes or factors explain a lot of variance and who is going to be in what category — we are decades away from that.” He believes that pain genetics is a great technique to come up with new drug development targets as “you can pull a rabbit right of your hat. I became interested in proteins that might actually make really good analgesics one day, just because I got interested in the genes that I didn’t have any prior information about.”

Mogil calls his most significant accomplishment the development of the Mouse Grimace Scale for quantifying spontaneous pain, a type of pain that does not need to be evoked by anything or any sort of outside force. He has developed this scale for mouse and rats and currently other labs are in the process of developing it for other species and “I would be surprised if a version of this scale doesn’t work in every mammal…just like Darwin’s prediction in his 1872 book that facial expressions of emotions are basically the same across all mammals”, remarks Mogil. This discovery may allow researchers and veterinarians to monitor spontaneous pain and may eventually lead to the discovery of new analgesics. Mogil believes that the elephant in the room in pain research is that no one studies spontaneous chronic pain, which he considers the most important symptom of clinical pain, essentially because researchers don’t know how to measure it, can’t agree on how to measure it, or otherwise believe that that measuring it is just too difficult.

Mogil takes an even-handed approach when discussing the future of pain genetics. He refers to an old joke that states that “it’s impossible to understand the brain because we only have brains to understand it.” He also states that “The world of biology is so complicated and every time we discover something after few years of hard work, it gets dwarfed in the big complex picture. On the other hand, I am just amazed and impressed by the speed of current techniques and how they allow experiments to be done in a week that if they could have been done at the beginning of my career, it would have taken a year or two or five.”

When talking about his lab and being a principal investigator, Mogil sees himself as a part of a team saying “the way I think about it is that in military terms; my job is strategy and their job is tactics. It doesn’t matter how good your strategy is when you don’t know the tactics, and it doesn’t matter how good your tactics are if you don’t have the good strategy. You cannot win with one of them only.” Mogil describes his job as a scientist as the best job in the world where “you can literally study anything you are interested in as long as you can talk someone into paying for it every few years. Just the freedom and the flexibility of that are perfect.”

A valuable piece of advice from Mogil to graduate students is that “you have to find something very specific. The way to have a career in science is to find something that when that phrase comes up, your name is the only name that they can match to that phrase and if you can pull that off, then you can guarantee yourself a scientific career.” He thinks people get in to science because they more or less want to think of the big picture. Instead, he believes that the reality is that one has to think of something very small in order to get oneself to be able to think of the big picture. “That’s just the way it is”, he says.

Mogil is not only a world-renowned expert in the field of pain genetics, but he is also a musician. He used to play in a band and had a record contract when he was seventeen. Nowadays and after twenty years of not playing, he has started playing keyboards again and currently performs in a band. As he says, “Once un-cool becomes cool again.”

Accomplishments in pain genetics will not only enhance pain management with the use of current treatments, but also leads to developing new analgesics. In this regard, without any doubt, Mogil’s unshakable interest in this field will continue creating top notch research projects and his landmark contributions may lead to new medications providing better pain relief.

Relevant publications:

1. Langford DJ, Bailey AL, Chanda ML, et al. Coding of facial expressions of pain in the laboratory mouse. Nat Methods. 2010;7(6):447-9.

2. Mogil JS, Wilson SG, Chesler EJ, et al. The melanocortin-1 receptor gene mediates female-specific mechanisms of analgesia in mice and humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003;100(8):4867-72.

3. Mogil JS, Bailey AL. Sex and gender differences in pain and analgesia. Prog Brain Res. 186: 141-57.