Senior Research Fellow
Dr Gustin is the Rebecca L. Cooper Fellow, senior neuroscientist and psychologist at NeuRA & UNSW and Head of the Pain Imaging Laboratory at UNSW. She also leads the Pain Research, Education and Management Program at NeuRA and UNSW. Dr Gustin completed her PhD in Psychology at the University of Tuebingen, Germany in 2006 and immigrated to Australia in 2007 to take up a postdoc position at the University of Sydney. In 2009 Dr Gustin was awarded a Career Development Fellowship by the NSW Office for Science and Medical Research. In 2015 Dr Gustin moved to NeuRA and UNSW, where she has a current appointment as a Senior Research Fellow. Her research is funded by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Rebecca L. Cooper Medical Research Foundation, the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), the US Department of Defence, the NSW Defence Innovation Network and the NSW Office for Science and Medical Research (OSMR).
For the past 20 years (11 years postdoc, self-funded) Dr Gustin has been using brain imaging techniques and psychological assessment to investigate the central and psychological circuits underlying chronic pain in humans. She has experience in the use of many brain imaging techniques such as magnetoencephalography and functional, structural and biochemical magnetic resonance imaging. In addition, Dr Gustin has practised as a psychologist focusing on the management of chronic pain. Her aim is to increase our understanding of the development and maintenance of chronic pain, in particular psychological and central components and their association with each other. And most importantly to develop and evaluate novel interventions that can provide pain relief via the primary source of pain: the brain.
Researchers from NeuRA, the University of New South Wales the University of Sydney, and HammondCare have found surviving sensory spinal nerve connections in 50 per cent of people living with complete thoracic spinal cord injuries.
The study, which is part of a decade-long collaboration between the researchers, used cutting-edge functional MRI (fMRI) technology to record neural response to touch. It was Dr Sylvia Gustin who analysed the fMRI images to identify the moment the patient’s brain registered the touch.
“Seeing the brain light up to touch shows that despite the complete injury to the thoracic spine, somatosensory pathways have been preserved,” explains Dr Gustin.
“It’s fascinating that although the patients did not ‘feel’ the big toe stimulation in the experiment, we were able to detect a significant signal in response to the touch in the brain’s primary and secondary somatosensory cortices, the thalamus, and the cerebellum.”
For those living with a complete spinal cord injury this means, despite previously believing the communication to the brain had been severed in the injury, messages are still being received. Dr Gustin describes this new category of spinal cord injury as ‘discomplete’
“The current classification system is flawed. It only contains two types of spinal cord injury – complete and incomplete,” says Dr Gustin.
“It is important we acknowledge there is a third category – the ‘discomplete’ injury, only then we can provide better treatment regimens for the many sufferers of a complete spinal cord injury.”
For those newly classified as ‘discomplete’, this discovery opens up new opportunities to identify those people living with a spinal cord injury that are more likely to benefit from treatments aimed at improving sensation and movement. Because of this study, research participant, James Stanley, now knows he belongs to a new category.
“It is exciting to know that there is a connection there, that my toe is trying to say hello to my brain,” says James.
“If medical professionals can work to identify people like me with a ‘discomplete’ injury earlier, perhaps they can find new treatments and rehabilitation techniques.
“The thought that one day I might be able to feel the sand between my toes again, or the waves wash over my feet gives me hope. It’s something Dr Gustin’s discovery has made possible.”