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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Rebeccah Slater

11 May, 2015

RSDr Rebeccah Slater is a Research Career Development Fellow based at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on understanding infants’ experience of pain using brain-imaging and how we can improve pain management. Here she tells us more about her lifelong interest in child development…

What are you working on?

I’m interested in how the human brain develops during early infancy. I’m developing an understanding of how the immature brain responds when infants are first exposed to tissue injury and begin to experience pain. My research group uses non-invasive brain imaging tools, including EEG and fMRI, to explore the development of the human nervous system. At the moment I am using fMRI to demonstrate that newborn infants have the sensory and emotional capacity to experience pain in a similar way to adults. I am about to use novel brain-imaging methods in a clinical trial to investigate whether morphine analgesia can provide effective pain relief for infants.

What does your average day involve?

I am in a very exciting phase of my career and it is a privilege to be able to exclusively focus on research. I am currently building a new young research team so most of my time is spent guiding

and motivating students, post docs and clinical researchers. On a day-to-day level this involves discussing and interpreting new data, writing manuscripts and grants and coming up with lots of new ideas for the future. In practice, I spend a lot of my time talking to my research team and colleagues about how we would like to shape our research direction.

Why is your work important?

Rebeccah's research team

Rebeccah’s research team

Historically, there has been a predisposition to undertreat pain in babies. In part, this has arisen because it is difficult to measure infant pain. As babies can’t tell us when they are in pain, it can be hard to assess whether pain medication is working. A recent study showed that while babies in intensive care experience an average of 11 painful procedures per day in the first 2 weeks of life, less than 40% received any pain relief. We need better ways to measure infant pain if we want to develop more effective treatments. My colleagues and I have shown that when painful procedures are performed in infants, the nervous system transmits this information to the brain, nevertheless little is known about which parts of the brain are involved in the infant pain experience or how this information is interpreted. This is an area of research in which I am currently involved (Goksan et al., eLife). If we can identify the parts of the brain that are active when infants experience pain, this may help us to infer some understanding about how infants interpret the experience.

 

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

Ultimately I would like to improve the treatment of pain in babies. By developing new ways to measure infant pain, we may be able to provide better treatment. I would hope that this would reduce some of the long-term behavioral and cognitive consequences that are associated with exposure to pain in early life.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

From a very young age I was interested in how children develop – when I was young I thought I wanted to work in a nursery school and chose to do a GCSE in Child Development. My first degree was in Physics and I quickly became interested in the biophysics of nerve cells. I knew I wanted to do a Neuroscience PhD but I didn’t think I had enough basic grounding, so decided to do a Neuroscience Masters at UCL. At this time I worked at The Institute of Child Health. My physics background and curiosity about child development meant I developed an interest in brain imaging in children. During my PhD I made the first observations that the newborn infant brain was activated following painful procedures, and since then have continued to use brain-imaging techniques to help us improve our understanding of infant pain.

Baby Amy in MRI Scanner

Baby Amy in MRI Scanner

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

The Wellcome Trust Funding has been incredible. It has given me the opportunity to pursue my own research ideas and set up my own research group with a fabulous team of people. It has ensured that my time is protected so that I can fully concentrate on research. The personal interactions with Trust staff have also been extremely rewarding and helped shape the focus of my research. I am privileged to be a Wellcome Trust Fellow. It has opened up many opportunities for me, and directly resulted in Oxford underwriting my Fellowship with a full academic position.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

I am often asked why it is not simply obvious that babies feel pain. People can see that babies cry and grimace when they have painful procedures like vaccinations or blood tests, so they are intrigued about why pain is difficult to measure. The answer to this lies in the fact that behavioral responses are not necessarily well correlated with the experience of pain – especially in the immature developing nervous system.

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

I don’t dread any questions about my work. I love talking to people about what I do. When talking to wider audiences the breadth of questions always surprises me.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

My brother and sister are both musicians and I learnt very quickly that I didn’t share their musical talents. However, during my University days I established and managed a small chamber orchestra called the Covent Garden String Consort. This Chamber group still exists and regularly performs classical concerts in the UK and abroad.

What keeps you awake at night?

My son – I optimistically lie in bed hoping that he won’t wake up – this rarely ever happens.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“If you focus on doing high quality science everything else will work out” Irene Tracey

The chain-reaction question, posted by previous spotlightee Professor Lora Heisler is this: What do you predict to be the biggest medical scientific discovery/achievement of the 21st century?

Understanding the workings of the human brain and applying this knowledge to improve our understanding of mental health.

To find out more about Rebeccah Slater and her research you can visit the University of Oxford website.

Image credits: Provided by author

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