July 5, 2021
UCalgary clinical psychologist Melanie Noel emerges as a leader in the field of pediatric pain
It’s an unnerving fact that a mere 40 years ago, babies underwent surgeries without pain relief because it was believed that their nervous systems were too undeveloped to feel pain, nor could they remember the experience.
“We now know that this was totally false,” says Dr. Melanie Noel, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology. Noel is in internationally renowned expert in the field of chronic and acute pediatric pain as well as children’s memories of pain. “Not only are those experiences felt and remembered, but they can actually change brain development,” she says. “They can set the stage for pain experiences and mental health right into adulthood.
“It really goes to show how young this field is. And there’s so much more that we need to understand.”
Understanding pediatric pain
It’s Noel’s passion for this burgeoning field of study, along with her tireless research drive and the truly groundbreaking work she’s done, that has made her an international leader in understanding and mitigating the impacts of chronic and acute pediatric pain.
This is also why she’s the first-ever recipient of the Killam Memorial Emerging Leader Chair, one of the most prestigious research chairs at the University of Calgary. The five-year chair was created to help accelerate the career and research of University of Calgary faculty members who have made outstanding contributions to their research field at an early stage of their career.
“Dr. Noel has emerged as a leader in the field of acute and chronic child pain, and her expertise is sought by researchers around the world,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “Since joining our university family for six short years ago, her contributions have been remarkable. A stellar researcher and mentor, her ground-breaking work has influenced how we practice pediatric medicine and treat pain. We are honoured to name Melanie the inaugural Killam Memorial Emerging Leader Chair.”
“For half a decade, this Killam Trust is providing me with funding and protected research time to ensure that I can propel my work forward,” says Noel. “This is a huge gift, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Bodily experience transformed by thoughts
Noel was first exposed to the research of pediatric pain via her earliest academic work in the field of developmental psychology. Through a focus on children’s memories of stressful experiences, including injuries, she became intrigued by how children remember pain. “Pain is fascinating for a psychologist because so much about pain is subjective,” says Noel. “It’s a perfect merging of the body and mind, the fact that this evolutionary, universal bodily experience can be so transformed by thoughts, memories and even language. All of this can have such a powerful influence on altering a child’s pain experience that it can offset problems later in life. It’s exciting work.”
As director of the PEAK (Pain Education, Advocacy, Knowledge) Research Lab, one of Noel’s greatest breakthroughs has been the development of an intervention to teach parents how to talk to their children differently about past pain experiences to foster more positive memories, thus influencing future health trajectories.
How a parent’s experience of pain can transfer to child
Another key area of Noel’s research is focused on the emerging field of pediatric pain neuroscience, examining the role of memory and the hippocampus in the transition from acute to chronic pain.
Noel has also done pioneering work in understanding how a parent’s experience of pain and trauma can be transferred to their children. “Chronic pain experiences in a parent can essentially get under the skin of a developing child to influence their own pain,” Noel says. “We’re partnering with neuroscientists; we’re looking at everything from epigenetic changes to language and memories to understand how we can halt this intergenerational transmission of pain from a parent to a child. The goal is to prevent chronic pain before it even begins.”
The Killam Memorial Emerging Leader Chair will allow Noel to catapult her research in these areas to new heights, positioning her as an international leader in the field of pediatric pain.
“Our understanding of pediatric pain has come a long way in 40 years, but we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to getting it on the radar and properly treated,” says Noel. “Advocacy and the relief of suffering is really at the core of my work.”
The Killam Memorial Emerging Leader Chair is one of the most prestigious research chairs available at the University of Calgary. It is awarded to a current University of Calgary faculty member who has, at an early career stage, made outstanding contributions to their field of research or scholarship. The purpose of the chair is to accelerate the scholar’s career, and the impact of their research, to a level of international leadership. The chair provides unrestricted research funds and dedicated research time at a critical juncture in the chairholder’s career.
Child Health and Wellness
The University of Calgary is driving science and innovation to transform the health and well-being of children and families. Led by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, top scientists across the campus are partnering with Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and our community to create a better future for children through research.
Melanie Noel is an associate professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Calgary and a member of the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, the Owerko Centre, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education at the Cumming School of Medicine. She directs the PEAK (Pain Education, Advocacy, Knowledge) lab within the Vi Riddell Pain and Rehabilitation Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.