Senior Research Scientist and Group Leader, NeuRA
Director, Centre for Pain IMPACT, NeuRA
R.D Wright Biomedical Fellow, NHMRC
02 9399 1075
Dr Siobhan Schabrun trained as a physiotherapist before completing a PhD in neuroscience at The University of Adelaide in 2009. Supported by a NHMRC Early Career Fellowship, she undertook post-doctoral training in pain neuroscience at The University of Queensland. In 2014, she received a Fulbright scholarship to further her interest in the neuroplasticity of pain in the USA and was awarded a QLD Young Tall Poppy Science Award. In 2018 she moved to NeuRA where she leads a program of research that seeks to understand why some people recover after an episode of musculoskeletal pain while others develop long-lasting, disabling pain. She is the 2020 Ulf Lindblom Award Recipient for an outstanding young clinical investigator in the field of pain.
Research interests include the discovery of biomarkers that can predict who will develop chronic pain – even before pain begins, investigation of the neurobiological mechanisms that underpin the transition from acute to chronic pain and the development and testing of non-invasive brain stimulation treatments for chronic pain. She is also passionate about improving the translation of research evidence into clinical practice. Follow Siobhan’s work on Google Scholar.
Siobhan is deputy lead of the low back pain working group of the SPHERE musculoskeletal clinical academic group, a nominated member of the Global Young Academy and is one of the inaugural Superstars of STEM.
Pain is the single most common reason for seeking medical attention. Under normal circumstances, pain acts to signal injury and is a protective response that prevents further damage and promotes tissue healing. People differ not only in their ability to detect and tolerate pain, but also in their ability to recover from an injury, with some people experiencing pain that outlasts the duration of tissue healing. Interventions to treat or cure chronic pain have had limited success.
Recent research has identified a novel cortical biomarker that could identify individuals at risk of developing chronic pain, which could be used to identify individuals at high risk of transitioning from acute to chronic pain (PREDICT project). However, whether a causal relationship exists between this cortical biomarker and pain is unknown.
The pain biomarker is based on rhythmic patterns of electrical activity in the brain and is measured using electroencephalography (EEG). Previous research suggests that the speed of this rhythmic activity can be altered through the administration of nicotine. MODULATE will attempt to alter the speed of the brain’s rhythmic activity, using nicotine gum, and observe the impact on pain. The project will help determine whether a causal relationship exists between the biomarker and pain.
Temporomandibular disorder (TMD) is the second most common musculoskeletal pain condition and is associated with pain and tenderness of the jaw. Although a number of biological factors have shown an association with chronic TMD in cross-sectional and case control studies, there are currently no biomarkers that can predict the development of chronic symptoms. Because of the difficulty in treating chronic pain, development of brain signal predictive biomarkers is of growing interest.
The PREDICT project will aim to develop a predictive biomarker signature of pain severity and duration using two commonly available techniques – electroencephalogram (EEG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – and perform initial clinical validation in first onset TMD. The biomarker could have utility in identifying patients at high risk of transitioning from acute to chronic pain and has additional potential for clinical application in the treatment and prevention of chronic pain.
This project will be carried out in collaboration with a team at the University of Maryland, Baltimore lead by A/Prof David Seminowicz (see more information here).
Seminowicz DA, Bilska K, Chowdhury NS, Skippen P, Millard SK, Chiang A, Chen S, Furman AJ, & Schabrun SM. (2020). A novel cortical biomarker signature for predicting pain sensitivity: protocol for the PREDICT longitudinal analytical validation study. Pain Reports, 5(4), e833. doi: 10.1097/PR9.0000000000000833
Effective, safe and cost-efficient healthcare is achieved when treatment is evidence based. Yet, it takes 17 years on average for research evidence to be translated into clinical care. This results in the overuse of ineffective treatments – those that do more harm than good – and the underuse of effective treatments – those that can improve symptoms and promote faster recovery after illness of injury. As a result, there is a huge gap between the healthcare people should receive and the care they do receive. TRANSLATE seeks to reduce the evidence-clinical care gap by implementing and monitoring evidence-based models of care in private practice.
Osteoarthritis is a major global health problem with no cure. Exercise is the cornerstone of conservative treatment, but effects on pain and physical function are at best, moderate. Non-invasive brain stimulation has the potential to bolster the effects of exercise therapy, resulting in greater improvements in pain and function than can be achieved with exercise alone. Here we will investigate this possibility in a randomized controlled trial of people living with knee osteoarthritis.
Low back pain (LBP) is ranked as the top single cause of disability worldwide. Costs have risen faster than for any other health condition and LBP is now equal to ischemic heart disease, and second only to cancer, as the costliest health condition. Approximately 40% of people who experience acute LBP develop chronic pain. These individuals are unresponsive to treatment, experience high levels of pain, struggle to perform daily tasks and frequently develop psychosocial comorbidities. The enormous scale of the problem is matched only by the mystery that accompanies it: despite decades of research, why some people develop chronic LBP while others do not, remains unknown.
The identification of biomarkers that can predict who will develop chronic LBP is a holy grail of pain research. Our new research has uncovered evidence for a unique biomarker signature that appears to predict i) an individual’s susceptibility to high pain severity, even before pain begins and ii) an individual’s susceptibility to developing chronic LBP following an acute episode. These biomarkers are now undergoing detailed investigation in on-going studies.
People in pain move differently. Yet, the biological basis for altered movement in pain is poorly understood. This lack of understanding has led to treatments for persistent pain that target generic symptoms with limited effect. This NHMRC-funded trial is the first to examine how different aspects of the nervous system are altered in pain and how this relates to movement. This information will guide the development of new treatment strategies for persistent pain in future.
Persistent musculoskeletal pain is one of the most significant health issues in the developed world. Termed a ‘Western epidemic’, low back pain is the most common form of persistent musculoskeletal pain and a leading cause of suffering and disability. Despite the enormity of the problem, many current therapies target generic symptoms, not underlying mechanisms, with limited effect. In 2010, the Australian National Pain Summit concluded ‘the management of pain is shockingly inadequate’. This assessment is not surprising given that critical information on the biological changes that underpin persistent low back pain is lacking. The UPWaRD study is a 5-year NHMRC-funded trial that investigates the role of brain plasticity, along with biological changes in the spinal cord, hormonal changes, genetics and stress, in the development of persistent low back pain.
KATARZYNA BILSKA PhD Student
LUKE JENKINS PhD Student
REBECCA LIVINGS PhD Student
WEI-JU CHANG Postdoctoral Fellow