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Pathological pain is the single most common cause of disability, affecting more than 20% of the population world-wide. It is a leading cause of all doctor and hospital visits, yet current treatments for chronic pain often fail to provide adequate relief. 


When we experience painful or non-painful sensations, sensory information is transmitted by specialized nerves from the skin to the spinal cord. The misprocessing of sensory information by pain processing networks in the spinal cord can lead to chronic, pathological pain.

The Sensory Plasticity Laboratory is led by Dr. Robert Bonin and explores pathological changes in sensory processing. 

Our research seeks to understand how spinal cord function contributes to pathological pain.

Addressing root causes of pathological pain 

Most effective treatments for pain, such as opioids like OxyContin, simply numb the pain but don’t treat its underlying mechanisms.


We explore how the ability of connections between cells in the spinal cord to change strength (called “plasticity”) contributes to pathological pain. Increases in the strength of cellular connections can lead to the amplification of pain.

Our research exploits fundamental properties of plasticity to reverse pathological changes in the strength of cellular connections, and address this root mechanism of pathological pain. 


Activity-Dependent Reversal of Hyperalgesia

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Chronic pain and memory share many mechanistic similarities. In some ways, pathological pain (hyperalgesia) can resemble a memory trace of pain that is stored in the spinal cord. Just like the memory of an event in the past, these memory traces of pain can be modified or even erased. 

We study plasticity of the cellular connections in the spinal cord at cellular and behavioural levels to identify mechanisms by which plastic changes in connectivity are modified by ongoing information processing. We use these insights to develop new approaches for reversing pathological plasticity underlying hyperalgesia. 

New Models to Improve Drug Development

The cost of developing a new drug has been increasing exponentially over the past several decades. The high cost of an approved drug arises, in part, from the increasing rate at which drugs fail in the development and testing pipeline. 

In the case of pain medication there is a large gap between a drug's success in preclincal testing and its success in human clinical trials. We aim to close this gap by developing new animal models and testing methods that more closely capture changes in behaviour associated with chronic pain. 

Modulation and Sensing of Spinal Cord Plasticity 

The networks of cells that process the sensations of innocuous touch and pain are interwoven in the spinal cord and skin. The functional and spatial overlap of these networks can make it impossible to isolate and study just one sensory pathway

Optogenetics is a biological technology that allows the use of light to control the activity of specific cells and to monitor their activity. We have developed new approaches for the use of optogenetics in the study of pain. We use these techniques to isolate, activate, and monitor specific sensory pathways in pain, and explore how the activity of these pathways changes in chronic pain models. 

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Calcium imaging in an in-vitro spinal cord preparation exposed to capsaicin

Data collected by postdoctoral fellow Erika Harding

Thanks for your interest in our research. Get in touch with us for any questions or comments regarding our work and publications.


Robert Bonin

Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building

144 College St, room 1004
Toronto, M5S 3M2

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