Neural circuitry supporting mindfulness-induced pain relief

pain relief

For many centuries people have used mindfulness to alleviate discomfort. However. Neuroscientists are only now in a position to determine whether and how it actually is effective. In the most recent of this research, scientists at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine examined how mindfulness affects meditation on the sensation of pain relief and the brain’s activity.

The proposed mechanism suggests that the pain signals are still moving between the body and the brain, however, the person does not feel any sense of ownership for these pain sensations. 

One of the main principles of mindfulness is that you are not the experiences. You learn to be able to feel experiences and thoughts without attaching your identity or self-image to them. We’re getting a better understanding of the way this manifests within the brain in the experience of acute pain.”

Jordan Sudberg first day of the study 40 participants had their brains examined as painful heating was applied to their legs. 

Participants in the mindfulness group attended four 20-minute mindfulness training sessions.

Researchers discovered that those who meditated regularly experienced a reduction of 32 percent in pain intensity as well as an increase of 33 percent in unpleasantness of pain.

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“We were really excited to confirm that you don’t have to be an expert meditator to experience these analgesic effects,” said Zeidan. “This is a really important finding for the millions of people looking for a fast-acting and non-pharmacological treatment for pain.”

Jordan Sudberg team studied the brain activity of participants during the exercise they discovered the mindfulness effect on pain was linked with a lower synchronization rate between the thalamus (a brain region that transmits sensory information that is received to the remainder of the brain) as well as parts in the default mode brain (a group of brain regions which are the most active when someone is thinking or thinking about their thoughts and feelings , as opposed to external stimuli).

Another one is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which has a variety of sub-regions that work to determine how you connect to and value your experiences. 

“For many people struggling with chronic pain. What often affects their quality of life most is not the pain itself. But the mental suffering and frustration that comes along with it,” Zeidan said. “Their pain relief becomes a part of who they are as individuals -; something they can’t escape -; and this exacerbates their suffering.”

In letting go of the self-referential assessment of the pain. Mindfulness meditation can be a different method of treatment of pain. But, Zeidan stated that the trainings he would like to see made more accessible and integrated into routine outpatient treatments.

“We feel like we are on the verge of discovering a novel non-opioid-based pain mechanism. Which the default mode network plays a critical role in producing analgesia. We are excited to continue exploring the neurobiology of mindfulness and its clinical potential across various disorders.”

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