Painful inspiration

Hanna Butler-Struben with trees in background

For this graduate student, chronic migraines sparked an interest in studying pain 

This story originally appeared on the University’s Bold Thinkers blog, which ran from May 2018 to Nov. 2019.

Hanna Butler-Struben was a freshman in high school when she started getting migraines. Eventually, she worked out a mix of medication and practices — like getting good sleep and avoiding stress — that allowed her to manage the intense daily pain. When she later began nurturing an interest in the inner workings of the brain, her experiences crystallized into a question: Why does chronic pain exist at all?

“Most pain has a function,” she explained. “Like learning not to touch a fire that hurts you. But if that burn still hurts 10 years later, you’ve already learned the lesson, and it just causes more stress on your body.”

Butler-Struben didn’t always want to study pain. She started college with an interest in sociology, then moved into psychology and neuroscience. She worked with everything from mice to pigeons to monkeys, all as models for ultimately understanding human health.

Two years ago, Butler-Struben joined the lab of Assistant Professor of Biology Robyn Crook, whose team of researchers studies animals like cuttlefish and squid to better understand pain. Studying chronic pain was out of the question for Butler-Struben — that requires a longer-term look than what’s possible in a two-year master’s degree program. But her thesis work did end up having a connection to her experiences. When she came across a study showing that the behavior of aquatic animals can be influenced by drugs (including one she uses to manage her migraines) that make their way into wastewater, she wanted to follow up with an experiment of her own.

“So,” she explained, “I gave cuttlefish Prozac.”

Butler-Struben wanted to understand how injuries and levels of the brain chemical serotonin combine to influence how the invertebrates learn. Prozac, which causes more serotonin to be available in the brain, might make it harder for cuttlefish to learn to avoid painful stimuli. In the end, her results were hard to apply to human health. But Butler-Struben says the experience has taught her a lot. “I feel like I’ve grown as a researcher,” she said. 

Butler-Struben isn’t sure what’s next for her, although she hopes to continue studying pain and wants to incorporate animal welfare into her work, too. One thing she does know is that after a career of animal research that’s spanned the fuzzy, the feathered and now the many-tentacled, she’s excited to get back to studying rodents. Partially because they’re often used to draw links to human health — and partially because they’re just so likable.

“Mice are really cute,” she explained. “And rats are supposed to be even nicer.”