Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds has isolated the changes in pain-related brain activity that follow mindfulness training — pointing a way toward more targeted and precise pain treatment.
The study, published July 27 in The American Journal of Psychiatry, identified pathways in the brain specific to pain regulation on which activity is altered by the center’s eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course.
These changes were not seen in participants who took a similar course without the mindfulness instruction — important new evidence that the brain changes are due to the mindfulness training itself, according to Joseph Wielgosz
Around one-third of Americans experience pain-related problems, but common treatments — like medications and invasive procedures — don’t work for everyone and, according to Wielgosz, have contributed to an epidemic of addiction to prescription and illicit drugs.
To measure neural pain response, study participants had their brains scanned while receiving a carefully controlled heat-based stimulus on their forearm. The researchers recorded two brain-wide signatures of pain-related activity, developed by collaborator Tor Wager, a professor of neuroscience at Dartmouth College. This innovative technique dramatically improves the ability to detect pain-related signals in the brain’s complex activity. Changes in signatures can also be more easily interpreted in psychological terms.
Participants in the MBSR course showed a reduction in a signature associated with the sensory intensity of pain.
The study also looked at longer-term mindfulness training. Intriguingly, practice on intensive meditation retreats was associated with changes in the neural signature for influences that shape pain indirectly — for example, differences in attention, beliefs and expectations, factors that often increase the perceived levels of distress in non-meditators.
These findings help show the potential for mindfulness practice as a lifestyle behavior.
Thus, in addition to the insights it provides about mindfulness, the researchers believe that their study can also provide a model for future research, helping to untangle the complexity of pain and ultimately reduce the burden it places on our lives.
JOSEPH WIELGOSZ et. al,()American Journal of Psychiatry, 28-Jul-2022