Research

Our goal is to understand the role of the nervous system in host defense and inflammation. Nociceptor neurons protect the organism from danger by detecting potentially harmful/noxious stimuli and eliciting the unpleasant sensations of pain or itch. Celsus defined pain as one of the cardinal signs of inflammation; however, the molecular mechanisms of pain during inflammation are not well understood. We found that nociceptors express specific receptors for pathogen and immune-derived factors, and may play an important role in modulating immune cell function. 

Pathogenic mechanisms of pain
Pain is a component of many infectious diseases, including bacterial and viral infection. We have found that Staphylococcus aureus produces pain by directly activating neurons through N-formylated peptides and the pore-forming toxin alpha-hemolysin. We are now identifying the key molecular mechanisms by which different bacterial pathogens induce nociceptor neuron activation and determining whether targeting these mechanisms could be important in the treatment of pain and infectious diseases.

Somatosensory neuron-immune interactions in pain and itch 
Nociceptors and pruriceptors encode the detection of noxious stimuli at the molecular level to produce pain or itch, respectively. However, the mechanisms leading to chronic pain or itch are not well understood. We will use single cell analysis, molecular biology, and animal models to investigate neuronal subsets and the types of inflammatory stimuli that lead to pain and itch. 

Neuro-immune cross-talk in host defense 
Molecular cross-talk between the nervous system and immune system is involved in inflammatory responses. We found that nociceptors altered immune cell recruitment and lymph node hypertrophy during infection. We aim to understand the molecular mechanisms by which neurons affect the generation of innate and adaptive immune responses during host-pathogen defense. By modulating the nervous system or its mediators, we may be able to develop ways to enhance the immune response and better treat infections.

Neuron-Bacteria Interactions in Modulating Pain and the Host Microbiota
The microbiota has been shown to influence neurobehavioral development and it is increasingly clear that bacteria-neuron communication occurs at the molecular level. We hypothesize that nociceptors and their mediators play an important role in influencing the composition and quality of the host microflora, and that composition of the microbiota may impacts nociceptor function and pain sensitivity. We will investigate how the crosstalk between nociceptor neurons and the gut microbiota may occur.