A University of New England researcher and a team of Massachusetts scientists have won a $6.6 million federal grant to explore the physical and emotional impact of eye damage.

Ian Meng (Courtesy of the University of New England)

Ian Meng will lead a project to map out eye nerves in hope of ultimately developing new, potentially more effective treatment for eye pain, according to UNE. Meng, director of the UNE Center of Biomedical Research Excellence for the Study of Pain and Sensory Function, will serve as the study’s principal investigator, working with researchers from Tufts University School of Medicine and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The grant from the National Eye Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, will fund the effort for five years. 

The team will examine changes to nerves in the cornea – the outermost layer of the eye – in response to injury and conditions including “dry eye.” The study could lead to answers about why some forms of chronic pain, including headaches and migraines, are so closely related to eye pain and why they cause such intense emotional responses.  

Meng believes that nerve cells in the cornea have a strong connection to the limbic system – the part of the brain involved in behavioral and emotional responses – which leads to some of the reactions to eye pain. “It’s like an express train to the brain’s emotional center,” Meng said in a statement.

Because it’s more densely filled with nerves than any other part of the body, the cornea is extremely sensitive to any form of injury, he explained. Vision is important to almost every aspect of a person’s life, so the nerves in the cornea are designed to protect the eyes.


The first part of the study will include mapping the nerves, while later phases will examine how injury to those nerves affects the brain’s response to trauma.

Meng said this grant is unusual because the National Eye Institute is funding several research groups that will regularly meet to discuss their progress, findings and processes. His team is one of eight groups participating. 

“This is a bold initiative from the National Eye Institute,” he said. “Oftentimes, scientists will develop their own techniques and keep the details to themselves; however, with this project, we’re all trying to advance the field in collaboration with each other.”

In addition to the Biddeford campus, UNE operates a campus in Portland. The university plans to relocate its medical school and other health care training programs there in a $93 million, two-year expansion.

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