'Mindful People' Feel Less Pain; MRI Imaging Pinpoints Supporting Brain Activity


Ever wonder why some people seem to feel less pain than others? A study
conducted at Wake Forest School of Medicine may have found one of the
answers – mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is related to being aware of the present moment without
too much emotional reaction or judgment,” said the study’s lead author,
Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at
the medical school, part of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “We now
know that some people are more mindful than others, and those people
seemingly feel less pain.”

The study is an article in press, published ahead-of-print in the journal PAIN.

The researchers analyzed data obtained from a study published in 2015
that compared mindfulness meditation to placebo analgesia. In this
follow-up study, Zeidan sought to determine if dispositional
mindfulness, an individual’s innate or natural level of mindfulness, was
associated with lower pain sensitivity, and to identify what brain
mechanisms were involved.

In the study, 76 healthy volunteers who had never meditated first
completed the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory, a reliable clinical
measurement of mindfulness, to determine their baseline levels. Then,
while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging, they were
administered painful heat stimulation (120°F).

Whole brain analyses revealed that higher dispositional mindfulness
during painful heat was associated with greater deactivation of a brain
region called the posterior cingulate cortex, a central neural node of
the default mode network. Further, in those that reported higher pain,
there was greater activation of this critically important brain

The default mode network extends from the posterior cingulate cortex
to the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain. These two brain regions
continuously feed information back and forth. This network is associated
with processing feelings of self and mind wandering, Zeidan said.

“As soon as you start performing a task, the connection between these
two brain regions in the default mode network disengages and the brain
allocates information and processes to other neural areas,” he said.

“Default mode deactivates whenever you are performing any kind of
task, such as reading or writing. Default mode network is reactivated
whenever the individual stops performing a task and reverts to
self-related thoughts, feelings and emotions. The results from our study
showed that mindful individuals are seemingly less caught up in the
experience of pain, which was associated with lower pain reports.”

The study provided novel neurobiological information that showed
people with higher mindfulness ratings had less activation in the
central nodes (posterior cingulate cortex) of the default network and
experienced less pain. Those with lower mindfulness ratings had greater
activation of this part of the brain and also felt more pain, Zeidan

“Now we have some new ammunition to target this brain region in the
development of effective pain therapies. Importantly this work shows
that we should consider one’s level of mindfulness when calculating why
and how one feels less or more pain,” Zeidan said. “Based on our earlier
research, we know we can increase mindfulness through relatively short
periods of mindfulness meditation training, so this may prove to be an
effective way to provide pain relief for the millions of people
suffering from chronic pain.”

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