Mapping the TMJ (Jaw) Joint
HEAL researchers also aim to get a comprehensive picture of nerve wiring of the jaw, toward understanding how pain develops in this complex joint that helps control breathing, eating, and speech. Like with the knee joint, there is a lot to learn.
Christopher Donnelly, D.D.S., Ph.D., of Duke University leads a RE-JOIN research team that is using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to map the sensory neural networks of jaw tissues in both mice and humans. The scientists aim to find the sensory neurons innervating the TMJ in both healthy mice and those with jaw disorders associated with acute and chronic pain. They will also analyze human jaw samples to see how different types of neurons contribute to the development of pain at a molecular level.
Another RE-JOIN project led by Armen Akopian, Ph.D., of the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio, is focusing on identifying the function, type, distribution, and molecular signatures of a group of specific nerves that provide sensation to the face and neck, including jaw tissues. One goal of this work, says Akopian, is to develop good animal models for TMJ disorders, including chronic pain – and ultimately reduce the need for opioid treatment of joint disorders.
Mapping the Disease–Pain Relationship
Understanding how disease leads to neural network changes in joints is an important question being answered by the RE-JOIN research effort. But these HEAL researchers are also interested in connecting wiring changes to pain symptoms.
Kyle Allen, Ph.D., of the University of Florida, is on the case, using advanced behavioral testing of rodents to assess how changes in joint innervation affect behaviors like movement and motion, as well as how they interact with each other. The scientists will also measure joint function and conduct sensory tests in human patients with jaw pain to see how neural network rewiring affects an individual’s pain symptoms.
“This research will help us stratify patients and identify the most effective personalized treatments,” says Allen, “as well as potentially develop new therapies in general for chronic knee and TMJ pain.”
Thanks to recent advances in technology, RE-JOIN scientists have a great opportunity to tackle unanswered questions about joint innervation and pain. Taken together with other HEAL research on the molecular underpinnings of nerve pain, the RE-JOIN research program will guide us to precision pain care and reduced reliance on opioid medications.