Following the launch of the second round of the CPN Challenge, we interviewed Prof. Shawn Hochman from Emory University, who is a member of the CPN Science Advisory Council. He shared his thoughts about our 10 year Challenge Program and also gave some advice for solvers.
Conquer Paralysis Now: Interview with SAC member Shawn Hochman
- Hello Shawn – thanks for joining us today. Can you start by telling us about your background and what attracted you to spinal cord injury (SCI) research?
My PhD research examined the effects of spinal cord injury on stretch reflexes, so I always had this area in mind. Nonetheless, my research has been more generally devoted to understanding neuromodulation-based spinal circuit modifiability, focusing on biogenic amine modulators serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine. These transmitters have been linked to activation of the spinal cord circuitry generating locomotion, control of autonomic function, as well as the potent control of spinal cord sensory input including of pain systems. Since SCI complexly modifies sensory, motor, and autonomic function, my research interests are a natural fit for a multi-system perspective on behavioral plasticity after SCI.
- What research are you currently working on?
We recently branched into more unexplored territories of investigation with a much stronger focus on SCI research.
We are examining the properties of paravertebral sympathetic chain ganglianeurons. They represent the final drive and control vascular function in the trunk and upper extremities. Given their strategic nodal site, any plasticity is likely to be of high significance, yet there are still no accurate recordings of their integrative properties or recruitment principles. That cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death after SCI compels a better understanding of plasticity in this essential neural population.
Secondly, with the proposition that a near-continuous record of an animal’s physio-behavioral self may offer insight to the origins of inter-animal variability, we have begun to develop approaches for high throughput continuous characterization of rodent physio-behavioral variables in their home-cages using electric field sensors. Capturing the temporal dynamics of SCI pathophysiology may help uncover phenotypic predictors of disease emergence for subsequent smart feedback-based prevention.
Third, we are testing whether pleasurable touch become painful after SCI. Skin C-fiber low-threshold mechanoreceptors (C-LTMRs) respond instead to innocuous tactile stimuli and are uniquely tuned to transmit information about pleasant affiliative touch. We hypothesize that SCI transforms these C-LTMRs into allodynia-encoding nociceptors in body regions associated with the segmental site of injury. We developed an ex-vivo skin-nerve preparation to characterize the properties of C-LTMRs by their selective optogenetic activation, and in response to brush stimuli.
- What is different about the CPN Challenge compared to more traditional sources of funding?
Scientific research is dominated by the application of established research methods to further probe our fundamental understanding of mechanisms in established research disciplines. Funding agencies cater to this dominant approach, and scientific reviewers on committees judge applications as meritorious based on this highly ingrained mindset. Although non-traditional high risk projects have the capacity to catalyze innovation and are potentially transformative, the lack of success via traditional funding opportunities reduces people’s incentive to think this way. The academic culture of publish or perish is a further disincentive to undertake risky research. The CPN challenge represents an important launchpad for this endeavor. While the Out-of-the Box award category says it all, clearly both the Collaboration and Cross-over awards are designed to ignite discovery by encouraging researchers in other disciplines to interact with SCI researchers and pollinate expertise to the field of spinal cord injury.
- The Trial & Error Prize is encouraging researchers to share data from lessons learned in their experiments. Why is this important?
The scientific enterprise is heavily biased to report on successes, not failures, so there many studies with negative results to important questions that never see the light of day. Worse, it may very well be that many failed clinical trials were in part based on the bias of reporting only positive findings. By encouraging researchers to share data from lessons learned, the Trial & Error Prize is targeting another important issue, to provide important insights on experimental approaches and results that help limit wasteful struggle or duplication in other labs.
- Any final words of advice or guidance for people looking to enter the Challenge?
This is a tough question. Obviously reading the expectations of the award categories should in itself tell you whether a category strikes a chord of excitement in you. Ideas based on cross-fertilization with immunologists, engineers, and experts very loosely associated with your field may prime an idea in you. The Challenge is looking for creativity and risk-taking, so perhaps dial down the focus knob a little, overwhelm yourself with an intense period of reading disparate information sprinkled with highlights on new technologies, and then let your unconscious do the work. Who knows – coffee is one of my dearest friends!