I am currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Biobehavioral Pediatric Pain (BPP) Lab, Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative, and Pain Medicine since July 2021. Under the supervision of Laura Simons I am researching the neuropsychological mechanisms underlying chronic pain in pediatric populations. Previously, I have conducted research at the Center for the Psychology of Learning and Experimental Psychopathology (CLEP) at KU Leuven, Belgium (2018-2021). Funded by the ERC project of Tom Beckers (WipeOutFear) we investigated neural and physiological markers related to the attenuation of fear memories. My PhD research was conducted at the Research Group on Health Psychology (OGP) at KU Leuven and the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience of Maastricht University (The Netherlands) under the joint supervision of Johan Vlaeyen, Rainer Goebel, Ann Meulders, and Amanda Kaas (2013-2018). During this time we investigated fear learning processes and neural networks related to painful touch.
Laura Simons, Postdoctoral Faculty Sponsor
Current Research and Scholarly Interests
My main research interests are in the field of chronic pain and learning. I am interested in understanding how processes related to learning can contribute to the development, spreading, and treatment of chronic pain. I am especially interested in understanding how fear and pain interact across complex brain networks.
The acquisition and generalization of fear of touch
SCANDINAVIAN JOURNAL OF PAIN
2020; 20 (4): 809-819
Objectives Contemporary fear-avoidance models of chronic pain posit that fear of pain, and overgeneralization of fear to non-threatening stimuli is a potential pathway to chronic pain. While increasing experimental evidence supports this hypothesis, a comprehensive investigation requires testing in multiple modalities due to the diversity of symptomatology among individuals with chronic pain. In the present study we used an established tactile fear conditioning paradigm as an experimental model of allodynia and spontaneous pain fluctuations, to investigate whether stimulus generalization occurs resulting in fear of touch spreading to new locations. Methods In our paradigm, innocuous touch is presented either paired (predictable context) or unpaired (unpredictable context) with a painful electrocutaneous stimulus (pain-US). In the predictable context, vibrotactile stimulation to the index or little finger was paired with the pain-US (CS+), whilst stimulation of the other finger was never paired with pain (CS-). In the unpredictable context, vibrotactile stimulation to the index and little fingers of the opposite hand (CS1 and CS2) was unpaired with pain, but pain-USs occurred unpredictable during the intertrial interval. During the subsequent generalization phase, we tested the spreading of conditioned responses (self-reported fear of touch and pain expectancy) to the (middle and ring) fingers between the CS+ and CS-, and between the CS1 and CS2. Results Differential fear acquisition was evident in the predictable context from increased self-reported pain expectancy and self-reported fear for the CS + compared to the CS-. However, expectancy and fear ratings to the novel generalization stimuli (GS+ and GS-) were comparable to the responses elicited by the CS-. Participants reported equal levels of pain expectancy and fear to the CS1 and CS2 in the unpredictable context. However, the acquired fear did not spread in this context either: participants reported less pain expectancy and fear to the GS1 and GS2 than to the CS1 and CS2. As in our previous study, we did not observe differential acquisition in the startle responses. Conclusions Whilst our findings for the acquisition of fear of touch replicate the results from our previous study (Biggs et al., 2017), there was no evidence of fear generalization. We discuss the limitations of the present study, with a primary focus on procedural issues that were further investigated with post-hoc analyses, concluding that the present results do not show support for the hypothesis that stimulus generalization underlies spreading of fear of touch to new locations, and discuss how this may be the consequence of a context change that prevented transfer of acquisition.
View details for DOI 10.1515/sjpain-2019-0177
View details for Web of Science ID 000581137700018
View details for PubMedID 32712594
THE NEURAL CORRELATES OF PAIN-RELATED FEAR: A META-ANALYSIS COMPARING FEAR CONDITIONING STUDIES USING PAINFUL AND NON-PAINFUL STIMULI.
Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews
Compared to the field of anxiety research, the use of fear conditioning paradigms for studying chronic pain is relatively novel. Developments in identifying the neural correlates of pain-related fear are important for understanding the mechanisms underlying chronic pain and warrant synthesis to establish the state-of-the-art. Using effect-size signed differential mapping, this meta-analysis combined nine MRI studies and compared the overlap in these correlates of pain-related fear to those of other non-pain-related conditioned fears (55 studies). Pain-related fear was characterized by neural activation of the supramarginal gyrus, middle temporal gyrus, inferior/middle frontal gyri, frontal operculum and insula, pre-/post-central gyri, medial frontal and (para-)cingulate cortex, hippocampus, thalamus, and putamen. There were differences with other non-pain-related conditioned fears, specifically in the inferior frontal gyrus, medial superior frontal gyrus, post-central gyrus, middle temporal gyrus, parieto-occipital sulcus, and striatum. We conclude that pain-related and non-pain-related conditioned fears recruit overlapping but distinguishable networks, with potential implications for understanding the mechanisms underlying different psychopathologies.
View details for DOI 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.09.016
View details for PubMedID 33011229
Fear of pain and cortisol reactivity predict the strength of stress-induced hypoalgesia
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF PAIN
2018; 22 (7): 1291–1303
Acute stress can have an effect on pain sensitivity, yet the direction of the effect - whether it is hypoalgesic or hyperalgesic - is mixed across studies. Moreover, which part of the stress response influences pain sensitivity is still unclear. In the current experimental study, we aim to examine the effect of acute stress on heat pain thresholds and pain tolerance levels in healthy participants, while taking into account individual differences in stress responses.Forty-two healthy participants were randomly assigned to either a well-validated stress paradigm: the Maastricht Acute Stress Task (MAST; combining physical and psychological stressors) or to a nonstressful version of the task. Heat pain thresholds and tolerance levels were assessed at three times: prior to the MAST, immediately after the MAST during the presumed sympatho-adrenal medullary (SAM) response, and 15 min after MAST to cover the presumed hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis response. Stress responses were assessed both subjectively and physiologically.We observed that the acute stress induction led to increased heat pain thresholds, an effect that was present only in participants showing a cortisol response following stress induction and only in the presumed HPA axis time window. The strength of this hypoalgesic effect was further predicted by the change in cortisol and by fear of pain levels.Our findings indicate that the HPA axis - and not the autonomic - stress response specifically underlies this stress-induced hypoalgesic effect, having important implications for clinical states with HPA axis dysfunctions.This experimental study shows that an acute stress induction - that combines physical and psychological stressors - increases heat pain thresholds, but not tolerance in healthy participants. Furthermore, the magnitude of this stress-induced hypoalgesic effect is predicted by cortisol reactivity and fear of pain, revealing specific involvement of the HPA axis stress system and interactions with pain-related psychosocial aspects.
View details for PubMedID 29577522
The Acquisition and Extinction of Fear of Painful Touch: A Novel Tactile Fear Conditioning Paradigm
JOURNAL OF PAIN
2017; 18 (12): 1505-1516
Fear of touch, due to allodynia and spontaneous pain, is not well understood. Experimental methods to advance this topic are lacking, and therefore we propose a novel tactile conditioning paradigm. Seventy-six pain-free participants underwent acquisition in a predictable as well as an unpredictable pain context. In the predictable context, vibrotactile stimulation was paired with painful electrocutaneous stimulation (simulating allodynia). In the unpredictable context, vibrotactile stimulation was unpaired with pain (simulating spontaneous pain). During an extinction phase, a cue exposure and context exposure group continued in the predictable and unpredictable context, respectively, without pain. A control group received continued acquisition in both contexts. Self-reported fear and skin conductance responses, but not startle responses, showed fear of touch was acquired in the predictable context. Context-related startle responses showed contextual fear emerged in the unpredictable context, together with elevated self-reported fear and skin conductance responses evoked by the unpaired vibrotactile stimulations. Cue exposure reduced fear of touch, whereas context exposure reduced contextual fear. Thus, painful touch leads to increased fear, as does touch in the same context as unpredictable pain, and extinction protocols can reduce this fear. We conclude that tactile conditioning is valuable for investigating fear of touch and can advance our understanding of chronic pain.The acquisition and extinction of fear of touch was investigated in a clinical analog study using a novel tactile fear conditioning paradigm. The results have implications for research on the development and treatment of chronic pain conditions characterized by allodynia and spontaneous pain fluctuations.
View details for DOI 10.1016/j.jpain.2017.08.002
View details for Web of Science ID 000418208600010
View details for PubMedID 28842367
The Neuroscience of Pain and Fear
Neuroscience of Pain, Stress, and Emotion:
Academic Press. 2016
View details for DOI 10.1016/B978-0-12-800538-5.00007-8