Meet a RC researcher- Tor Wager

Brain ImageBrain image showing the neurological signal for physical pain

           Dr. Tor Wager has been a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder, since 2010. Born and raised in Colorado, he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan before working as an assistant professor and then as an associate professor at Columbia University. When his children were born, he decided to return to his home state. He says that “the combination of a great place and a great university” brought him to CU Boulder.

            Wager’s research focuses on the way pain and emotion are constructed in the brain. He explains, “People think of pain as registering what’s coming in from the body, but it’s actually much more complicated. The brain plays a very active role in telling you how much pain to feel. Often, in the case of chronic pain, it’s the brain circuitry that’s gone haywire.” The brain and spinal cord, which compose the central nervous system, are constantly learning. When a part of the body is injured, the central nervous system can learn to amplify danger signals coming from that area. After the injury heals, chronic pain can occur if the brain, having learned to pay attention to the previously injured area, continues to amplify danger signals. Early research on chronic pain focused on the body, or on studies of animals’ brain activity. Research such as Wager’s, which examines pain in the human brain, has begun only recently. Because pain and brain activity differ greatly between humans and animals, this research can lead to significant advances in psychology and neuroscience.

            To conduct his research, Wager brings sufferers of chronic pain to the new MRI scanner on campus and collects images of their brain activity. He is able to collect 400,000 bits of brain activity per second with this brain imaging technique. The phenomena of pain and emotion vary between individuals; in order to create models showing fundamental similarities in brain activity, Wager wants to maximize the amount of data he examines. He is collaborating with researchers around the globe, bringing many data sets together.

      Research Computing provides the PetaLibrary, with petabyte-scale disk and tape storage, which centralizes Wager’s data management. He is able to store data from his own past and present studies, as well as those of collaborators, “to work towards increasingly computationally sophisticated accounts of what happens in the brain when we feel pain or other kinds of emotion.” Through the PetaLibrary, Wager is able to access enormous quantities of data and do analyses across data sets. Ultimately using this data to develop an accurate model of the way pain is constructed in the brain would be an enormous step towards finding a way to treat chronic pain.

      Research Computing makes Wager’s research more cost-effective; buying computers, managing storage space, and providing backups for data are expensive. Wager says, “There are costs in hardware and there are costs in personnel, and getting the right person with the right expertise to provide those services is not easy.” It would be very difficult for Wager’s team to manage the computer systems, including analysis and data storage, on their own. “We need Research Computing’s help,” Wager says. “What they do is essential to support the kind of science that we’re doing.”