LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A scientist who broadened the understanding of how we experience pain — and ways we can control and relieve it — has won the 2010 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.
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.