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Nature or nurture? ASU professors study how chronic pain is passed down in families

Pain can run in families for a lot of different reasons, says ASU professor.
First-of-its-kind research aims to find out how chronic pain is passed down.
February 27, 2017

It’s 7 a.m. on a school day and little Susie’s got a stomach ache. Do you tell her to buck up, get dressed and send her to the bus stop, or do you tuck her back into bed and prepare some warm soup?

The answer could depend on a number of things — from your parenting style, to little Susie’s pain threshold, to your own experience with pain — and could ultimately affect how she deals with pain for the rest of her life.

The problem is, there isn’t any current research that considers all of the potential factors at play.

ASU psychology professors Mary Davis and Kathryn Lemery-Chalfant hope to change that. The pair have been awarded $3 million from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study how chronic pain develops, and in particular, how it gets transmitted from parents to children.

“Pain can run in families for a lot of different reasons,” Lemery-Chalfant said.

Knowing what those reasons are, added Davis, can allow for early intervention to “potentially prevent a lifetime of having to manage a chronic pain problem, or at least delay it until you’re much older.”

The idea for the study came to Davis after she read an article that linked having 0, 1 or 2 parents with chronic pain predicted pain in adolescents and young adults in a dose response way — adolescents who had no parents with pain were at low risk for having pain themselves; adolescents who had one parent with pain were at a higher risk; and adolescents who had two parents with pain were at the highest risk.

“I read that and I thought, how can this be possible?” Davis said. “These are young people in the early, healthiest parts of their lives. How are these parents transmitting pain to these kids so early?”

Lemery-Chalfant had been studying a group of twins since birth to find out how early environmental factors affect their development. Davis reached out to her and proposed they use the group to look at how pain is passed down in families since twins can help rule out genetic factors.

Over the next five years, the pair of researchers will survey 350 sets of twins and their families at three different intervals. Each time, they will run a series of tests to measure how much a specific factor affects both the parents’ and the children’s’ experience of pain.

One test involves recording the children’s pain reaction to having their arm submerged in ice cold water. The test is performed twice, once with the primary care giver present, and once without the primary care giver present, to see if the child’s reaction differs. If it does, it could mean the child’s reaction to pain is influenced by their primary caregiver’s parenting style.

The primary care giver also is given the test separately in order to measure their pain threshold. If their child has a similar pain threshold, it could mean their reaction is genetic.

It’s the first study of its kind to look at all the different factors that could affect a child’s experience of pain.

“There hasn’t been a single study that looked at all of these potential mechanisms; environment, psychological factors, genetic influences, etc.,” Davis said. “That’s part of the importance of this study, is that we’re able to look at multiple mechanisms to see how this transmission takes place.”

She and Lemery-Chalfant hope their findings will help to make parents more aware of particular behaviors or things they’re doing without awareness that can shape their children.

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ASU jumps 9 spots in Peace Corps ranking, landing in top 15

ASU moved from No. 22 to No. 13 on Peace Corps top colleges list.
43 Sun Devils currently serve in the Peace Corps worldwide.
March 1, 2017

Service organization says 43 Sun Devils are currently volunteering around the world

Arizona State University jumped nine spots this year from its 2016 ranking on the Peace Corps’ Top Volunteer-Producing Colleges and Universities list, securing a spot in the top 15.

ASU moved up to No. 13 — tying with UCLA and ranking ahead of schools including the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia and Indiana University — with 43 Sun Devils currently volunteering worldwide. Their majors span a breadth of fields, from business to sustainability to global health. 

Peace Corps campus recruiter Breanne Lott said it shows the strength of the partnership between ASU and the Peace Corps.

“Over the past couple years, the partnership has really grown,” she said. “There’s a Peace Corps class, a Peace Corps ambassador internship, a Peace Corps club and more. There are tons of ways to get involved and explore what the Peace Corps has to offer.”

Since the Peace Corps’ founding in 1961, 1,052 ASU alumni have traveled abroad to serve as volunteers.

 2017 marks the eighth consecutive year the university has been recognized on the Top Colleges list, which is compiled annually according to the size of the student body.

“Peace Corps service is an unparalleled leadership opportunity that enables college and university alumni to use the creative-thinking skills they developed in school to make an impact in communities around the world,” acting Peace Corps Director Sheila Crowley said in a press release. “Many college graduates view Peace Corps as a launching pad for their careers because volunteers return home with the cultural competency and entrepreneurial spirit sought after in most fields.”

Service in the Peace Corps is a life-defining, hands-on experience that offers volunteers the opportunity to travel to a community overseas and make a lasting difference in the lives of others.

ASU psychology senior Katharine Greer was recently accepted into the Peace Corps and will be heading to Costa Rica in July to teach English. A member of the ASU Peace Corps club, she has been preparing by giving English lessons to refugees in the Phoenix area.

“It’s worthwhile to experience a different culture and way of life,” Greer said. “Especially now, in order to be a global citizen. … Also, I have a desire to help people, and this felt like the perfect way to help now — not after grad school or after I get my PhD, but right now.”

Lott, who served in Ethiopia from 2012 to 2014, said that ASU’s core values line up perfectly with the Peace Corps.

“ASU is a really unique school,” she said. “Its model of a New American University that strives to be socially embedded and part of the global community fits really well with the goals and mission of the Peace Corps.”

This year’s rankings follow the launch of the Peace Corps’ refreshed brand platform that underscores its commitment to putting the user experience first, making the agency more accessible to audiences through the platforms they already use. Interested parties can learn more about service opportunities by visiting the Peace Corps website and connecting with a recruiter.

View the complete 2017 rankings of the top 25 schools in each category here, and find an interactive map that shows where alumni from each college and university are serving here.

Top photo: A road winds through a farming area outside Cartago, Costa Rica. ASU psychology senior Katharine Greer will be heading to that nation in July to teach English with the Peace Corps; she has been preparing by giving English lessons to refugees in the Phoenix area as part of the ASU Peace Corps Club. Photo by Jose Conejo Saenz

Emma Greguska

Reporter, ASU Now

(480) 965-9657