Study by UC San Diego reveals neural circuitry that supports mindfulness-induced pain relief — ScienceDaily


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Since ancient times, people have tried mindfulness meditation to relieve pain. But neuroscientists were unable to confirm that this is possible. The University of California San Diego School of Medicine recently measured the effects of mindfulness and brain activity on pain perception.

The July 7, 2022 publication of the study was published in PAINMindfulness meditation was shown to disrupt the communication between brain regions involved in pain sensation and those responsible for the perception of self. According to this proposed mechanism, pain signals still flow from the body to brain but the individual does less with regard to their pain sensations. This reduces suffering and pain.

Fadel Zeidan PhD, senior author and associate professor of anesthesiology, UC San Diego School of Medicine said, “One of the central tenets of mindful is the principle that your experiences are not your thoughts.” “You can learn to allow yourself to feel thoughts and sensations, without attaching your self or ego to them. Now we are finally seeing how this works in acute pain.

40 participants were subject to brain scanning and painful heat being applied to their legs on the first day. Participants were asked to rate their pain levels after experiencing the heat stimuli.

The participants were then divided into two groups. The mindfulness group participated in four 20-minute sessions of mindfulness training. These visits taught them to be mindful of their breath, reduce self-referential process, and first acknowledge their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Then, let them go. The control group spent four sessions listening to an audiobook.

The brain activity of both the control and mindfulness groups was measured again on the final day. Participants in the mindfulness program were then instructed to meditate while they felt the heat. While the control group remained with their eyes closed, the participants in the mindfulness group were asked to do the same.

Researchers discovered that those who meditated regularly reported a 32 per cent reduction in pain intensity and 33 percent decrease in pain unpleasantness.

Zeidan stated, “We were thrilled to confirm that an expert meditator is not required to experience these analgesic benefits.” This is an important discovery for millions of people who are looking for non-pharmacological pain relief.

The team studied participants’ brain activity throughout the task and discovered that mindfulness-induced relief of pain was associated with decreased synchronization of the thalamus (a brain region that relays incoming information to the rest the brain) as well as parts of the default network (a collection brain areas that are most active when a person is processing their thoughts or thinking about the outside world)

Precuneus is one of these default mode areas. It is a brain region involved in basic features of self-awareness and one of the first to go offline when someone loses consciousness. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is another subregion that works together to help you process your feelings and place value on them. Participants reported more pain relief if these areas were more decoupled or deactivated.

Zeidan said, “Many people who suffer from chronic pain are not affected by the pain but the mental suffering and frustration that it causes.” Their pain is a part and parcel of who they are, and something they can’t escape. This only makes their suffering worse.

Mindfulness meditation can be a way to get rid of the need for self-referential pain appraisals. Mindfulness meditation is free and accessible anywhere. Zeidan expressed hope that trainings will be more accessible and integrated into outpatient services.

“We feel that we are close to discovering a novel, non-opioid-based pain mechanism. In which the default network plays a crucial role in producing analgesia. We are excited about continuing to study the neurobiology behind mindfulness and its clinical potential across various diseases.

Gabriel Riegner (Valila Oliva), William Mobley and Valeria Oliva are all co-authors at UC San Diego. Grace Posey at Tulane University is also a co-author, as is Youngkyoojung at University of California Davis.


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