Dana Alliance member Beverley Greenwood-Van Meerveld, Ph.D., director of the Oklahoma Center for Neuroscience and Presbyterian Health Foundation Chair in Neurosciences at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, is as active in the community as she is in the lab, where she studies the connection between visceral pain—a dull, generalized pain emanating from internal organs—and anxiety. “I investigate how stress affects the gastrointestinal tract,” Greenwood-Van Meerveld says. “Drilling it down further, I’m asking the how early life stresses contribute to belly pain in adults.”
In the lab
It might not be intuitive, but there is an imaginary line in our bodies called the gut-brain axis. According to a 2013 Cerebrum story, “naturally occurring, ever-present commensal bacteria may be instrumental in how your brain develops, how you behave, how you react to stress, and how you respond to treatment for depression and anxiety.” Greenwood-Van Meerveld is well aware of this axis. One illness she has researched is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as the symptoms of IBS are often worsened by stress or anxiety.
Early life adversity such as neglect, maltreatment, and chronic illness have been connected to later health issues, including IBS. Also, about twice as many women as men have IBS. With those two facts in mind, the effects of early life adversity and the role of female hormones in visceral pain are critical to our understanding of IBS.
In one study Greenwood-Van Meerveld co-authored, she modeled early life stress in male and female rats. In adulthood, the males experienced no visceral pain, but the females did. When she removed the females’ ovaries, and all the hormones that go with them, their pain went away. When estrogen was reintroduced, the pain returned, indicating estrogen as a major contributor to visceral pain.
In another study, Greenwood-Van Meerveld looked at both visceral and somatic pain (skin and deep tissue pain; also known as musculoskeletal) in female rats. Previous research had shown that IBS patients have overactive amygdalas, the part of the brain deep within the temporal lobes that play a key role in memory processing and decision-making. In this study, the rats with overactive amygdalas—induced via steroid—experienced visceral pain throughout their menstrual cycle, compared to regular rats that only experienced pain in the first half of their cycle. Somatic pain increased during the cycle for the “amygdala rats” and the pain was at a higher level throughout.
In the community
Greenwood-Van Meerveld and her team coordinate a monthly Neuro Night in which brain experts present information to the public on a particular topic. Each session involves two or three experts, including a graduate student. Presenters are not permitted to use slides, forcing them to speak in lay terms. The events, hosted in assisted living centers to reduce the costs, draw as many as 100 people. The public is in direct contact with those making the science as well as those who can explain what is happening across an array of neurologic and nervous system disorders and diseases. Students from undergraduate and graduate programs are also welcome.
While the Dana Foundation provides helpful guidelines for putting together outreach events for Brain Awareness Week, it takes effort to make them happen. At the Oklahoma Center for Neuroscience, Greenwood-Van Meerveld’s team is the driving force, signing up speakers well in advance and making sure they have back-ups in case of emergency. Greenwood-Van Meerveld believes that “involving graduate students is particularly important, as it exposes future researchers to the benefits of educating the public about diseases of the nervous system.”