It is well documented in clinical reports that some individuals are more vulnerable than others to developing chronic pain with considerable variability in response to treatment with pain drugs. However, this individual pain vulnerability and differential drug response are rarely addressed in preclinical research on animal pain models. The individual pain vulnerability is thought to be largely mediated by epigenetic changes that are induced by prior stressful events and pain experience, and lead to differential responses to subsequent pain stimuli and analgesic drugs. This proposal is designed to investigate the role of DNA methylation, a long- lasting form of chromatin modification that mediates gene repression, in individual variance and vulnerability to developing chronic pain. In preliminary studies, we found that animals display considerable variance in developing negative emotions of affective pain under chronic pain and stress conditions; and the vulnerability to developing the negative emotions is closely associated with downregulation of DNA methyltransferases 3a (Dnmt3a) that catalyzes de novo DNA methylation in pain- and emotion-regulating central amygdala (CeA). We propose multidisciplinary studies to test our central hypothesis that pain- and stress-induced Dnmt3a downregulation and associated DNA hypomethylation in central amygdala is a key process that leads to increased individual vulnerability to developing chronic pain.
Aim 1 will systematically characterize the individual variance and vulnerability in rat and mouse models of orofacial pain and establish a functional link between pain and stress by determining whether animals vulnerable to chronic pain are also vulnerable to stress in developing the negative emotions of affective pain.
Aim 2 will determine the functional role of CeA Dnmt3a in the individual vulnerability by associating the downregulation of CeA Dnmt3a with the individual vulnerability and by mimicking the effect of pain and stress with functional knockdown of CeA Dnmt3a.
Aim 3 will determine molecular manipulations that reduce the individual vulnerability by reversing pain-induced downregulation of CeA Dnmt3a and examine the function of pain inputs onto CeA neurons in induction of the pain vulnerability. These proposed studies are expected to provide key knowledge on the role of DNA methylation in the individual vulnerability and to move the field forward with potential molecular targets for the future development of individually targeted pain medicine.

Public Health Relevance

This project investigates molecular mechanisms that alter individual vulnerability and response to pain and stress stimuli in the development of chronic pain. It focuses on a molecular process that changes the expression and function of certain genes in animal models of pain and stress. Current genetic and molecular techniques are used to manipulate the molecular process for better understanding of the underlying mechanisms and for future development of individually targeted pain management.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Dental & Craniofacial Research (NIDCR)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZDE1)
Program Officer
Vallejo, Yolanda F
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
United States
Zip Code
Lu, Li; Marisetty, Anantha; Liu, Bin et al. (2018) REST overexpression in mice causes deficits in spontaneous locomotion. Sci Rep 8:12083
Cai, You-Qing; Wang, Wei; Paulucci-Holthauzen, Adriana et al. (2018) Brain Circuits Mediating Opposing Effects on Emotion and Pain. J Neurosci 38:6340-6349
Wang, Wei; Li, Caiyue; Cai, Youqing et al. (2017) Pain vulnerability and DNA methyltransferase 3a involved in the affective dimension of chronic pain. Mol Pain 13:1744806917726713