University Lecturer 2001-06, Professor of Pain Research 2005-07
Professor Irene Tracey MA, DPhil, FRCA, FMedSci, MAE joined the Department of Human Anatomy and Genetics in 2001 as University Lecturer in association with a Tutorial Fellowship at Christ Church College. Professor Tracey had first joined Oxford as a Biochemistry undergraduate at Merton College, then took her DPhil with Sir George Radda (later Head of the newly merged DPAG), awarded in 1993. Following a postdoctoral position at Harvard, she returned to Oxford in 1996 to be a founding member of the Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB) in 1997. After a series of MRC-funded posts, she secured her first tenured position at DPAG (then DHAG) with Professor Kay Davies at the helm. She juggled her time building her team at FMRIB alongside running a lab in the LGC basement and teaching undergraduate medical students under the mentorship of Professor Jeremy Taylor at DHAG and Dr Ian Thompson at Christ Church and Physiology. Alongside other supportive colleagues such as Professor Zoltan Molnar and Dr Susanna Blackshaw, Professor Tracey was part of the team responsible for developing and modernising the neuroscience offering in the medical curriculum, which had just expanded from 100 to 150 students.
In 2005, Professor Tracey was appointed Professor of Pain Research and became Director of Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB but now the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging (WIN)), taking over the reins from another supportive mentor, Professor Paul Matthews, who was its founding Director. She remained in the Department for a further two years as a Senior Professor during the merger to DPAG, before leaving in late 2006 to take on the Nuffield Chair of Anaesthetic Science alongside her Directorship of FMRIB. During her 10-year tenure as Director, Professor Tracey advanced FMRIB’s imaging infrastructure and developed its scientific culture with a focus on nurturing and establishing the next generation of imaging scientists – notably women. FMRIB rapidly became one of the world’s leading neuroimaging centres with an outstanding reputation for science and training. She mentored and developed her successor, Professor Heidi Johansen-Berg, who secured its present Wellcome Centre Status and has taken WIN to new heights of scientific achievement. Professor Tracey was also closely involved in the merger of Anaesthetics (she was department Head), Neurology and Ophthalmology in 2010 to become the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences (NDCN), later becoming Head of NDCN from 2016-19 and an Associate Head of the Medical Sciences Division (2014-16).
Professor Tracey is dedicated to understanding how the human brain constructs the perception and experience of pain, what goes wrong in chronic pain, how brain networks are modulated when people feel less or more pain, and how neuroimaging can inform analgesic drug development and offer pain biomarkers (Neuron 2019). Professor Tracey’s interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary team have advanced understanding across three critical areas. Within the psychological domain, her lab has shed light on how anxiety and depression influence pain and on how positive and negative expectations shape pain experiences (Science 1999, Journal of Neuroscience 2001, Biological Psychiatry 2010, Nature Medicine 2010). These findings have important therapeutic implications (Science Translational Medicine 2011). Within the physiological domain, the Tracey Lab has proved that anti- and pro-nociceptive mechanisms within the descending pain modulatory system (a network involving cortical, sub-cortical and brainstem regions) are key in the context of pain reduction during placebo analgesia and distraction and pain amplification during central sensitisation after injury, respectively. Her team identified that an imbalance in the anti- and pro- nociceptive arms of this system is a key mechanism underpinning chronic pain (Journal of Neuroscience 2008, Neuron 2007, Nature Neuroscience 2014, Brain 2018, Arthritis Rheumatology 2019), and they developed novel ways to image tonic pain (Nature Neuroscience 2015).
Finally, her lab’s analgesia and anaesthesia work has shed light on how the brain can be profoundly manipulated to suppress pain. Recent work has identified a potentially exciting individualised brain-based biomarker of perception loss that with colleagues she is developing for translation to the operating room (Science Translational Medicine 2013). She has written a textbook and layperson’s book on pain.
As of 2021, Professor Tracey holds the positions of Pro-Vice-Chancellor (without portfolio), Professor Anaesthetic Neuroscience and Warden of Merton College, where current Head of DPAG, Professor David Paterson, holds his Fellowship. She sits on the Council of the Medical Research Council and is President-elect of FENS. Professor Tracey continues to deliver lectures for undergraduate medics alongside her Head of College duties. Much of this commitment stems from her time at DPAG. According to Professor Tracey: “DPAG not only gave me that first job of pure tenure, giving me security and the confidence to think about longer term questions to pursue, it also gave me great exposure to teaching and governance, starting me on a course I’ve always followed: to be a good citizen and contribute to how we run things. I’ve been so fortunate in the people I’ve worked with both within my research team and across the Collegiate University. Now I’ve returned to Merton College to give back to a place that took me on and gave me a great education.”