Q&A with 2019 Mitchell Max Award Recipient

June 13, 2019

Dr. Michael Burton is an Assistant Professor in the Systems Neuroscience Program in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded Dr. Burton the 2019 Mitchell Max Award for his research on Delayed Onset of Neuropathic Pain in Aged Males After Peripheral Nerve Injury. Dr. Burton took a break from his research to reflect on the esteemed honor:

Describe your research for a lay audience.

The objective of our studies is to understand the impact of advanced aging and inflammation on chronic pain development. By the year 2050, the U.S. population of people aged 65 or older will double to 20-30%. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of increased longevity is pain associated with falls/injury, diabetes, and chemotherapy, with 40-80% of the aged population experiencing pain on a daily basis. The mechanisms that underlay the development of chronic pain are highly sought after, because current therapeutics fail to offer relief in over half of patients. We believe a hyperactive immune system during aging leads to maladaptive hyper-excitability that plays a role in the development of pain. A key feature of my research is that we study the physiological role of aging and sex in immune cells to determine how inflammatory pathways are necessary for the development of neuropathic pain.

What led you to your topic of research?

I stumbled into the research topic of pain neurobiology. During my first postdoc experience at UT Southwestern, I was working on a project that involved peripheral sensory neurons in the context of metabolism. As I conducted experiments, it became clear that these subjects were different; they did not seem to exhibit pain in a similar way throughout their life and I was intrigued to find out more information about them. Luckily my postdoc advisor was supportive and encouraged me to seek a second postdoc mentor in the realm of pain and use these animals for that purpose. This is when I found my second postdoc mentor, Ted Price here at UT Dallas in 2015. After I e-mailed Ted my interest and resources we had a meeting set-up and within an hour after our first in-person meeting I was hired and on my journey in the realm of pain and immunity.

What does being awarded the 2019 Mitchell Max Award mean to you?

Acting NIH National Institute of Nursing Research Director, Dr. Ann Cashion presents Dr. Burton with the 2019 Mitchell Max Award.

To receive the 2019 Mitchell Max award is an honor. It means that my ideas in understanding immune mechanisms in aging and pain are translatable to the human population and represents a clear need in project development and understanding in the field. The project serves to help bridge gaps in our understanding about what happens during advanced aging and pain development. I know how fantastic the other research groups’ who participated in the competition for this award are and I am truly humbled.

What advice would you give to the younger version of yourself?

I would bullet point it into four things:

  • Everything happens for a reason. Trust the process.
  • Work hard, but play just as hard. You only have one life.
  • Be courageous. Be curious and definitely try new things.
  • Stop being so hard on yourself.

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