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  Ron Dubner and the "Lone Rangers"

In 1964, Ronald Dubner returned to NIH from the University of Michigan. Dubner had worked in the Clinical Center from 1958 to 1961 as a young Dental Officer in the Commissioned Corps; there he had discovered his interest and talent for research, and successfully applied for NIH support for his Michigan doctoral studies in neurophysiology.  Seymour Kreshover , Scientific Director of the Institute, was a major supporter of the young researcher and his plans to establish a basic neuroscience laboratory at NIDR.

Dubner set up his lab in the basement of Building 30 and hired Fred Brown, a young electrical engineer, to put together the physiological recording apparatus he needed. He began recording from nerve cells in the brain and the trigeminal nucleus that are excited by visual and auditory stimuli.

How did he relate these studies to the mission of the Dental Institute? Through the problem of dental pain. Dubner argued that an understanding of the mechanisms of pain, and the development of methods for its management and control, had to be based on a thorough knowledge of how sensory information was processed. His early work showed that the first central relay nucleus in the trigeminal system was the site of significant modifications of sensory information; and that the association cortex in the brain was possibly the site where multiple sensory inputs converged.

The trigeminal system is the medullary section of the spinal dorsal horn which processes sensory information from the face and cranium.

Dubner's was among the very first research projects to accept the challenge laid down by Melzack and Wall's gate control model (1965) to describe the complex sensory, cognitive, and affective components of clinical pain as physically embodied in an interactive nervous system.

There were several other basic scientists working in Building 30 at the time: Bruce Dow and Barry Sessle in Dubner's lab; Steve Gobel a neuroanatomist who was interested in electron microscopy studies of the trigeminal system; and a group of microbiologists.  When Kreshover became Director of NIDR in 1966, Richard Gruelich , the new Scientific Director, decided to build a basic science unit around these "lone rangers", which was named the Physiology Section.  The following year, Gobel, Dubner, and his team were separated from the microbiologists and designated the Neural Mechanisms Section.

Dubner and his collaborators had demonstrated by 1969 that both ascending nerve fibers from the skin and descending fibers from the brain were synaptically connected to the dorsal horn of the spinal cord (the nucleus caudalis, or the "nerve center" of the trigeminal system). This connection suggested the presence of "a rapidly conducting feedback loop", which could act to enhance or alleviate information about sensory stimuli.

A graph showing the gate control model of pain
A graph showing the gate control model of pain

Back To Top | Photography Credits

Photograph of Seymour Kreshover

Seymour Kreshover
Photograph of Patrick Wall and Ronald Melzack
Patrick Wall [l] and Ronald Melzack [r]
Photograph of Ron Dubner, Barry Sessle, and Eigld Moller
Ron Dubner [l] and Barry Sessle [r] with colleague Eigild Moller at International Association for Dental Research, mid-1970s
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