Scientist who helps explain pain wins Grawemeyer Award

Ronald Melzack, psychology professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal, was selected for the award from among 24 nominations.

People feel pain not at the point of injury but instead in their brain through a pathway that travels through the spine, Melzack proposed. His “gate control” theory of pain suggests people can change or control their suffering by using emotional and personal processes to block, increase or decrease the feeling of pain.

Building on that 1965 theory, he concluded that pain is subjective and multidimensional because several parts of the brain contribute to it at the same time.

Melzack’s studies have led to innovative treatments for people who feel chronic, incessant pain. Patients now are taught to manage pain by redirecting their focus through techniques such as meditation and distraction.

“His work produced a major change in how scientists and physicians think about pain and made psychology an integral part of pain research and therapy,” said Woody Petry, a UofL psychological and brain sciences professor who directs the psychology award.

Melzack also examined the “phantom limb” pain often experienced by amputees. He found that the neural network we are born with generates our perception of body, self and experience – even that of pain in the absence of injury.

In another project, Melzack and a colleague developed the McGill Pain Questionnaire which measures the sensory and emotional aspects of pain rather than merely assigning a number to how badly it hurts. The questionnaire’s short form has been translated into 57 languages and is widely used in clinical research.

Five Grawemeyer Awards are presented annually for outstanding works in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology, education and religion. Winners of the other 2010 Grawemeyer Awards also are being announced this week.

About Ronald Melzack

Ronald Melzack, a professor emeritus of psychology at Montreal’s McGill University, has devoted his life to the study of pain.

He began teaching at McGill University in 1963. Before achieving emeritus status in 1999, he was McGill’s E.P. Taylor professor of pain studies in psychology. Previously, he taught psychology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1959 to 1963 and at University of London from 1957 to 1958.

While at McGill, he also co-founded and was research director of what is now the McGill-Montreal General Hospital Pain Centre and was a consulting specialist in that hospital’s neurosurgery division. At Royal Victoria Hospital, he co-founded its Pain Clinic and was an associate member of its anesthesiology department and a medical scientist for its psychiatry department.

Melzack wrote “The Puzzle of Pain” and co-wrote “The Challenge of Pain,” both of which have been reprinted and translated into several languages. He also edited or co-edited several texts including “Pain Measurement and Assessment,” “Textbook of Pain,” “Handbook of Pain Assessment” and “Handbook of Pain Management.”

The Montreal native received his doctoral, master’s and undergraduate degrees from McGill. He has honorary doctorates from University of Waterloo and Dalhousie University.

This year he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame after winning numerous awards from groups including the Canadian Psychological Association, Canadian Pain Society, Canada Council for the Arts, American Academy of Pain Management and American Society of Regional Anesthesia.

Melzack is also a fellow of the American Psychological Association, Canadian Psychological Association and American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He has served on the editorial boards of many academic journals, including Pain, Experimental Neurology, Journal of Behavioral Medicine, American Journal of Chinese Medicine, Journal of Pain & Symptom Management, and Regional Anesthesia.

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