Tuesday, June 28, 2022

For some people, “no pain, no gain” is a familiar adage. For Tahsin Khataei, a doctoral student in Health and Human Physiology, it’s a personal mantra. Khataei’s scholarly interests lie at the intersection of internal medicine and human physiology, as reflected in his research in Dr. Christopher Benson’s lab (housed in the Internal Medicine department) and his doctoral coursework in the Health and Human Physiology department.

Tahsin Khataei
Tahsin Khataei, a doctoral student in Health and Human Physiology

The “no pain, no gain” adage is central to Khataei’s research, as he studies how exercise training modulates pain perception. He wants to understand how it relates to athletes—who treat pain as an indication of improving performance—versus people with chronic pain and chronic fatigue syndrome—who suffer exaggerated pain after exercise and who essentially believe in “all pain, no gain.”

“I was interested in exploring the mechanism in the sensory neurons that could indicate athletes might have a different pain perception than people with chronic pain and chronic fatigue,” Khataei explained. Driven by his experience as both an athlete and a coach—he has trained in and coached everything from Judo to swimming to soccer to wrestling—he wanted to better understand why athletes perceive pain differently than other people, especially those struggling with chronic pain and fatigue. “The mechanism should be the same,” he said. “I want to understand why there are differences between these two groups.” To do so, he started to look at mechanisms in sensory neurons, including examining how Acid-Sensing Ion Channels (ASICs) are impacted by pain.

It turns out that very few labs around the world actively study the relationship between ASICs and pain, and by chance, one such lab is housed at the University of Iowa. Khataei came to Iowa in December 2015 as a visiting doctoral student, intending to perform research at the university for one year. Delighted by his performance, Dr. Benson offered Khataei a full-time research assistant position, so he continued his research with the intention of eventually returning home to defend his doctoral thesis.

However, at the start of 2017, an executive order from the former President of the United States suspended entry into the country for certain groups of people, including people traveling from Khataei’s home country of Iran. As a result, despite having completed two years of his doctoral program in Iran, Khataei was unable to return home to defend his doctoral thesis and was instead tasked with transferring his degree application to Iowa to complete his graduate work. Khataei credits the Graduate College and the Health and Human Physiology department for working together to help him continue his doctoral work at the University of Iowa.

In the years following his transfer to the University of Iowa, Khataei has expanded his research interests to investigate how ASICs and exercise-induced muscle pain impact delayed onset muscle soreness, or the pain that you might feel two to three days after exercise. By studying how different groups of mice experience muscle pain and exhaustion across time, he hopes to better understand the interplay between pain perception, locomotive activity, and delayed onset muscle soreness.

Finding the mechanisms for exercise-induced pain will have broad applications for multiple populations. “It is really interesting for me that my research can be general enough for everybody, not only patients medically. The results of my research can also be beneficial for healthy people and athletes,” he clarified.

Khataei sees other, more individualized, benefits as well. “Maybe for people with chronic pain or fatigue, perceiving pain during exercise is a good sign that they should exercise at a lower intensity and not push themselves as much during exercise. Maybe it tells us the safe zone for them to exercise, or that they should have familiarization or acclimation sessions before participating in the exercise protocols,” he shares. “These are some of the outcomes of my study that can help people with chronic fatigue or pain to manage their activity- or exercise-induced pain.”

Khataei’s work ethic and commitment to his research is evident to anyone who meets him, as his mentor, Dr. Benson, can attest. “Spend a short amount of time with Tahsin, and you will understand why he is unique,” he said. “He will bowl you over with his enthusiasm, passion for his work, and infectious laugh and smile. Certainly, his unique background has played a large part in his making: being an elite athlete and athletic trainer, his perseverance to make a better life here in the US, to name a few. However, he is more than just a product of his upbringing–Tahsin seems inherently programmed for success.”

A recipient of the Ballard & Seashore dissertation fellowship, Khataei is looking forward to defending his dissertation within the coming year. The award guarantees dedicated time for him to both work on his dissertation and to prepare for what comes next. “I’m hoping to continue my research as a postdoctoral student at a university in the United States,” he explained, outlining his intention to study how different mindsets might modulate physiological and neurological outcomes of, and adaptations to, exercise.

Despite his unconventional journey through the University of Iowa’s doctoral program and the setbacks he has faced, Khataei still appreciates his experience here. “The University of Iowa gave me great opportunities to grow and improve my science, my skills, my knowledge in the field, and to be able to present myself to the world as well and to explore my novel ideas here.” Much like the athletes he references in his research, Khataei has found that with challenges and pain comes growth and possibility.