Demystifying Meditation, Brain Imaging Illustrates How Meditation Reduces Pain
- Demystifying Meditation, Brain Imaging Illustrates How Meditation Reduces Pain
06 Apr 2011
Meditation produces powerful pain-relieving
effects in the brain, according to new research p
ublished in the April 6 edition of the
Journal of Neuroscience.
"This is the first study to show that only a
little over an hour of meditation training
can dramatically reduce both the experience
of pain and pain-related brain activation,"
said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., lead author of the
study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake
Forest Baptist Medical Center.
"We found a big effect about a 40 percent reduction
in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in
pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater
reduction in pain than even morphine or other
pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce
pain ratings by about 25 percent."
For the study, 15 healthy volunteers who had
never meditated attended four, 20-minute classes
to learn a meditation technique known as focused
attention. Focused attention is a form of
mindfulness meditation where people are taught
to attend to the breath and let go of distracting
thoughts and emotions.
Both before and after meditation training, study
participants' brain activity was examined using
a special type of imaging -- arterial spin labeling
magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI) -- that captures
longer duration brain processes, such as meditation,
better than a standard MRI scan of brain function.
During these scans, a pain-inducing heat device
was placed on the participants' right legs. This
device heated a small area of their skin to 120°
Fahrenheit, a temperature that most people find
painful, over a 5-minute period.
The scans taken after meditation training showed
that every participant's pain ratings were reduced,
with decreases ranging from 11 to 93 percent,
At the same time, meditation significantly reduced
brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex,
an area that is crucially involved in creating
the feeling of where and how intense a painful
stimulus is. The scans taken before meditation
training showed activity in this area was very
high. However, when participants were meditating
during the scans, activity in this important
pain-processing region could not be detected.
The research also showed that meditation increased
brain activity in areas including the anterior
cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the
orbito-frontal cortex. "These areas all shape
how the brain builds an experience of pain from
nerve signals that are coming in from the body,"
said Robert C. Coghill, Ph.D., senior author of
the study and associate professor of neurobiology
and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist.
"Consistent with this function, the more that
these areas were activated by meditation the
more that pain was reduced. One of the reasons
that meditation may have been so effective in
blocking pain was that it did not work at just
one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain
at multiple levels of processing."
Zeidan and colleagues believe that meditation has
great potential for clinical use because so little
training was required to produce such dramatic
pain-relieving effects. "This study shows that
meditation produces real effects in the brain and
can provide an effective way for people to
substantially reduce their pain without medications,"
Funding for the study was provided by the Mind
and Life Institute in Boulder, Colo., and the
Center for Biomolecular Imaging at Wake Forest Baptist.
Source: Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center
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