Mindfulness meditation may play a role in preventing depression relapse and in managing chronic pain, according to new neuroscientific research led by Catherine Kerr, assistant professor of family medicine at Alpert Medical School and the director of translational neuroscience for Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative. Christopher Moore and Stephanie Jones, assistant professors of neuroscience co-authored the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience last week.
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing attention on one’s breathing and internal bodily sensations, according to the study. The “present-moment focus” that mindfulness meditation enables “is thought to improve well-being by allowing individuals to become aware of sensations, emotions and thoughts that arise in the mind without judgment or reactivity,” according to the study.
The study suggests those who engage in this mindfulness practice gain enhanced control over their cortical alpha rhythms — the synchronous firing of a population of neurons in the brain at a specific frequency. These rhythms help control how the brain processes sensory information, such as pain, and negative emotional states, like depression. They also help organize the general flow of information in the brain.
The researchers found that better control of these rhythms enables meditators to bias their attention away from negative states.
Kerr said mindfulness meditation “debiases the body map representation so that attention is not captured by chronic pain sensation. … You have equanimity towards it.” Effective meditators may modulate their firing of alpha rhythms to allow for the most favorable filtering of sensory information, according to the study.
These hypotheses are built in part on prior experiments conducted by the group, according to a University press release.
In a 2011 study published in Research Bulletin, the researchers separated subjects into two groups — an experimental group that practiced mindfulness meditation for eight weeks and a control group that did not, according to the press release. At the end of the eight-week period, the researchers asked the participants to focus attention to their hands and then to switch their attention to their feet. The meditators displayed larger and more rapid changes in alpha wave amplitudes in the cortical hand representations during the attention shifts than the non-meditating controls, according to the release.
In their most recent study, the researchers also developed a computational model that effectively simulates the firing patterns of the network of neurons between the thalamus, which acts as a relay station through which a majority of sensory information passes, and the cortex, where the information is processed. This particular model has replicated the actual alpha rhythm data from past human studies. According to the model, mindfulness meditation leads to a top-down influence on alpha waves, which allows for more “precise alterations in timing and efficacy” of the connections between the thalamus and the cortex.
Harold Roth, professor of religious studies and the director of the Contemplative Studies Initiative, said Kerr’s study is important “because it begins to give neuroscientific foundation to what we have known for many years” — that pain can be modulated through meditation.
Roth is trying to establish a department of contemplative studies that merges “scientific, humanistic and artistic” perspectives. “This research is foundational for what we are attempting to build here,” he said.
Despite a lack of direct financial support from the University, there are 14 independent concentrators who fall under the umbrella of contemplative studies, he said.
“I think it’s very exciting that investigators that are associated with Brown are finding out the mechanisms of Buddhist practice from a highly empirical scientific perspective,” said Hiroe Hue ’13, who is concentrating in contemplative psychology and chemical and biochemical engineering.
“Professor Roth is working hard to make contemplative studies a department at Brown and this new article from Professor Kerr is moving us one step closer,” Hue said.