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The Virtuoso Ian Meng

Last May, Ian Meng travelled to Seattle to the Annual Meeting of the Association for Research and Vision (ARVO) to present findings from his studies on the medical condition of dry eye.

But as much as he was interested in his colleagues’ research presentations and mixing among the 11,000 participants, the highlight of the conference for Meng was a Wednesday evening classical music concert, during which he played the cello in a performance of the first movement of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet, Op. 44.

His fellow performers included scientists from the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center, the Assaf Harofe Medical Center, Israel, and the University of Bonn, Germany.

“For me music is something that keeps me sane,” Meng explains. “I think I would have a very difficult time if I had science but didn't have music.”

Meng is a professor of biomedical sciences in the UNE College of Osteopathic Medicine, co-director of UNE’s Center for Excellence in the Neurosciences, and director of the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) for the Study of Pain and Sensory Function. COBRE is funded by a $10 million NIH grant, for which Meng was lead investigator.

Two areas of research that Meng is currently pursuing are medication overuse headaches and dry eye.

“When I was a post doc and thought about what I wanted to study when I started my own lab, I wanted to find something that is clinically relevant and meaningful. When I see something that is a societal problem and that I can contribute to, then I really tend to focus in on that.”

Meng grew up in the San Francisco Bay area but came east to Brown University for his undergraduate degree, initially majoring in music and political science. During his sophomore year, however, he enrolled in an introductory course in neuroscience.

“What attracted me to neuroscience was that it was a new science, there were so many unknowns, so much more to explore. To me it was kind of like space being the final frontier. I still see it that way.”

He continued on at Brown for his doctoral studies, in part because he was performing with a chamber music ensemble and liked the Providence music scene.

It was during his graduate studies that he first got involved in the study of pain in the head and face area. The specialized structures of the head and face are complicated and make “pain a lot trickier to deal with.”

After post-doctoral work at the University of California San Francisco, he came to UNE where he has continued his work on pain in the area of medication overuse headaches.

In some individuals, the overuse or constant use of certain pain relievers actually results in more frequent headaches.

Meng and the students that work in his lab have looked at how the chronic administration of such pain medications causes changes in the brain. He has also been trying to relate his research on overuse headaches to the mechanics of migraine headaches in general―what actually initiates a migraine and what constitutes a migraine.

But during the last five years, he has also been conducting research on “dry eye,” a condition in which there are insufficient tears to lubricate the eye. About 20 percent of the population and nearly 40 percent of women over 50 suffer from “dry eye” pain. “It can essentially feel like you have sandpaper on the backs of your eyelids every time you blink,” Meng explains.

One treatment is to put drops of artificial tears onto the cornea. But Meng is testing a hypothesis that this treatment may actually be contributing to the problem, shutting down the system that senses the drying of the eye and causing the tear glands to atrophy.

The eventual outcome of the research might be the development of medications that, instead of just coating the surface, would actually activate certain neurons, leading to the production of tears.

“It’s an area where science can really contribute and have a pretty big impact in terms of the treatment,” Meng says.

In his non-science life, Meng enjoys performing in a string trio with his wife, who is a violinist, and a friend who is a violist. He is already in touch with his musical scientific colleagues, who are tossing around ideas for the concert at next year’s ARVO meeting in Florida.

Meng has always had to balance the time he spends on his music and his research. At one point during graduate school, Meng realized that he needed to spend more time in the lab. Lately, he has been thinking he needs to spend more time with his music.