This is your brain on Pain: Nate Fried on Pain and Alzheimer’s

Dr Nathan Fried joins us this week

Dr Nathan Fried joins us this week

Our next curator is University of Pennsylvania Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Nathan Fried (@NeuonNate). Here’s Nate’s story.


My name is Dr. Nathan Fried (or, just Nate) and I’m a neuroscientist, educator, science communicator, and what I call, “an artist of sorts”. I’mIMG_20180425_193945  currently on my last week of what I’ve been calling my “Summer Science Tour 2018” where I’ve been traveling the East Coast and United Kingdom giving lectures and meeting with artists and scientists. If musicians call it a tour when they play city to city, why not scientists when they talk city to city? I’m currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Neuroscience in Philadelphia working to unravel how the brain changes in patients who develop chronic pain. This coming Fall, I’ll be starting as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at Rutgers University, Camden.

Mentors. That’s why I’m in science. When I was a kid, I didn’t even know being a scientist was possible. They were people on TV or in the news. As a first-generation low-income student, I had no idea that literally ANYONE could go into science. But, I did like science. So, several key mentors saw that in me and they helped guide me through academia. My story is certainly not one that started with a keen ability in science at an early age. I’ve simply been fortunate to find the right people.

My interests in neuroscience first began at Drexel University, where I studied Alzheimer’s Disease; a disorder that is not only deadly, but also robs you of the essence of who you are – memory. This fascination with the brain and the human experience eventually brought me to the doorstep of Jefferson, where I entered a PhD program in Neuroscience. During this time, my interest in memory evolved into one of sensory systems. If memories represent “who we are as people”, then our senses are the fundamental neurological conduit to “how we become who we are” since these systems allow us to experience and interpret the world around us. One of these sensory modalities is pain – a warning system that is vital to survival, but becomes re-wired and physiological meaningless in chronic pain patients. So instead of it being a helpful warning system, it just causes suffering. This led me to migraine where I developed a thesis investigating the neurochemical mechanisms behind the hangover headache. Although this seems like an odd thing to study for five years, alcohol is a very common trigger for migraine attacks. If we can understand how a particular trigger works to cause pain, no matter how silly it may seem, we can find the physiological or neurochemical “weakness” that allows it to cause a migraine attack. Once we find that weakness, we can target it for treatment.

Following this, I started my postdoctoral research at the University of Pennsylvania where I worked explored how pain neurons and the brain change when someone develops chronic pain. One was studying the molecular mechanism behind how skin cells interact with pain neurons in an effort to unravel how yoga, acupuncture, and massage work to relieve pain. The hope was to find a way to make those treatments work even better! Another project explored the emotional circuitry behind chronic pain in the context of aggression. We all know chronic pain can make you irritable, but identifying the circuitry behind that can help us understand more about how pain is processed by the brain – something we still know very little about. The last major project I worked on was to find a new way to assess pain in mice. This is important because the first step to finding new pain treatments is to test them in rodents. A huge problem, however, is that a VAST majority of drugs that we think are working in mice end up not working in humans, which suggests we might not be assessing pain in mice appropriately. So, we combined slow-motion videography, statistical modeling, and machine learning to more accurately measure mouse body language as a way to interpret their pain. As an Assistant Professor at Rutgers, I hope to push into using fruit flies to study how pain affects sleep and how poor sleep inevitably affects pain.

But, research is not everything to me. I’m also passionate about science communication. Too often, I find the public is mistrusting of science, and that can drive poor policy-making. My goals are to break down the doors to those ivory towers. Science is not an elusive career. We are all born curious. To this end, I’m a freelance science journalist where I write stories about recent pain breakthroughs, give public lectures world-wide on all things neuroscience, and more recently, engage artists to find unique ways of educating the public through story-telling and other performance art.

I’m also an educator. I teach courses about the brain and have even designed a class that teaches students about the brain architecture that drives addiction and facilitated the opioid epidemic. I’ve been training at Penn to become a faculty member at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs) with a particular focus on increasing diversity in the biomedical sciences. As a first-generation low-income student myself, I want to help those from underrepresented backgrounds find their spot in science because in order to solve the world’s biggest challenges, we need scientists from a range of backgrounds to offer their diverse perspectives.

Outside of science and performance art, you can catch me at FDR park skateboarding. I can do a mean kick-flip, but these days, I don’t hit anything too big because it’s a bit difficult to give a lecture on crutches! I love, love, love cinema. Whether it’s the newest X-men movie or Guillermo Del Toro film, I could spend the entire day with a bag of popcorn sitting in a movie theater.

Join me this week where I will be tweeting about a range of topics including pain, migraine, challenges for first-generation low-income students in science, career tips for transitioning to a PUI, what it’s like being a freelance science journalist, and integrating science into the arts.


Please welcome Nate to Real Scientists!

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