Oakley Morgan, University College London

Stress, orofacial pain and headache disorders (PhD studentship)

Oakley Morgan was awarded a Brain Research UK PhD studentship in 2018 to enable her to pursue her research in facial pain disorders and headache. 

After graduating from the University of Sussex with a degree in Psychology, Oakley embarked upon an MSc in Neuroscience at University College London. During her Masters studies she received lectures on pain research from Dr Sandrine Géranton and Professor Stephen Hunt, and when an opportunity later arose to join their lab as a Research Technician, she jumped at the chance. This gave her the perfect opportunity to explore her interests in pain research.  

This all stands her in excellent stead for her PhD studies; she has proven herself as a hardworking and independent member of the lab, and has gained experience in a wide range of techniques that will underpin her proposed PhD project.  

About headache and facial pain

Migraine and orofacial pain are two of the most common and debilitating pain conditions, and both are poorly treated by current therapeutics.

Migraine is a complex condition that is estimated to affect one in seven people. It is more prevalent than diabetes, epilepsy and asthma combined and, because of its prevalence, is one of the leading causes of disability among the neurological disorders.

Migraine has a variety of symptoms, most notably a painful headache. Other symptoms include disturbed vision (aura), sensitivity to light (photophobia), sound (phonophobia) and smells, as well as nausea and vomiting.

The chronic form of migraine affects up to 2% of the population, and is defined as having more than 15 headache days in a month, with at least eight being migranous. 

Orofacial pain is a general term covering any pain that is felt in the mouth, jaws and face. It has been estimated to affect up to 7% of the population. The symptoms vary in severity but the chronic form of this pain is enormously debilitating.

Our limited knowledge of the underlying causes of these pain conditions make them difficult to manage. Stress is known to exacerbate facial pain and trigger migraines, but little is known about the mechanisms underlying this relationship. Oakley hopes to shed light on these mechanisms during her PhD research.

How does stress translate into pain?

Stressful life events are known to exacerbate chronic pain states and this is particularly true amongst chronic migraine and orofacial pain sufferers.

Whilst the underlying mechanisms linking orofacial pain or headache with stress are not well understood, there is evidence that a protein called FKBP51, which is already known to play a role in the body’s response to stress, may drive these pain states.

Oakley will explore the relationship between stress, orofacial pain and headache, specifically investigating whether blocking FKBP51 can decrease chronic orofacial pain and migraine. She will also investigate whether FKBP51 can modulate the effect of early life stress on orofacial pain and headache. 

Oakley is undertaking this research under the supervision of Dr Sandrine Géranton, a leading expert in the molecular biology of pain and the role of FKBP51 in persistent pain.  For three years prior to embarking on her PhD, Oakley worked with Dr Géranton as Lab Manager and Research Technician in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at University College London, giving her the opportunity to explore her interests in pain research whilst gaining important experience in the lab techniques that will underpin her PhD research.

Oakley also has a second supervisor in Dr Anna Andreou of King’s College London, a world-renowned specialist in migraine and orofacial pain, bringing complementary expertise and additional training opportunities.

This exceptional research environment stands Oakley in good stead not only for successful completion of her proposed research, but to continue to flourish and succeed as an early career researcher in this important field.

Impact

Chronic headache and orofacial pain conditions are often debilitating and have a significant negative impact on quality of life.

Existing treatments are effective for only a small population of those affected, and if we are to work out how to treat the conditions more effectively we need to understand the underlying disease mechanisms.

Understanding the association with early life events and increased susceptibility to these conditions will also enable the development of personalised treatments.

Equally important, through this PhD studentship, we are nurturing the development of a promising young researcher who we hope will go on to develop a long and illustrious career in this under-researched and under-resourced field.

Related research projects

Headache is one of our current priority research areas, reflecting the large unmet need in this area. We want to fund research that will help us to understand the underlying causes and mechanisms of headache and facial pain, and help advance diagnosis and treatment. 

Other research projects currently funded under this theme include: