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With grant, Brown to collaborate on mindfulness research

Researchers at Brown, Harvard, UMass study whether yoga, meditation can improve patient adherence

A new $4.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will fund University researchers’ investigation of whether mindfulness can help patients to better heal and adhere to set medical regimens.

The five-year grant encompasses two phases of research, according to a University press release. The first phase will review the data from mindfulness interventions conducted on around 2,000 participants to determine if these interventions influenced patients’ adherence to their medical regimens. The second phase will explore various intervention methods to further evaluate their effects. Studies will be conducted at the University, Harvard and at the University of Massachusetts, according to the release.

The new study will observe whether mindfulness interventions can improve patients’ self awareness and attention control, and whether these improvements lead to greater adherence to treatments and healthier patients, said Eric Loucks, assistant professor of epidemiology and co-principal investigator along with Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior. The treatments that the team will study include dietary changes, increased exercise and the taking of blood pressure medications.

Research taking place at the University will focus on sitting meditation, yoga and body scans — the meditational practice of shifting awareness throughout the whole body, Loucks said. Studies at Harvard will also center on yoga, using methods from the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Mass. Research at the University of Massachusetts will focus on stress reduction interventions, a technique developed at UMass 35 years ago.

“In order to influence health we need to know how to customize it so it’s really effective and efficient,” Loucks said. “We want to maximize the things that work and get rid of the things that don’t.  This study is going to help us really start to learn about what works with the mindfulness interventions and what doesn’t.”

These mindfulness interventions are designed with the intention of being integrated with Western medicine, Loucks said. “There are lots of paths to health,” he said, adding that scientists should look at  all possible solutions to determine what each individual needs.

Loucks began practicing “mindfulness meditation” nearly 20 years ago and has taught mindfulness in his community for almost 15 years. This research project combines his longstanding interest in mindfulness with his professional work as an epidemiologist studying social determinants of heart disease risk, he said, adding that the project “matches who (he) is.”

Loucks said the grant was written at the contemplative studies department, where he and Britton collaborated with Catherine Kerr, assistant professor of family medicine, and Jared Lindahl, visiting assistant professor of religious studies. An official concentration since May 2014, contemplative studies “investigates the underlying philosophical, psychological and scientific bases of human contemplative experience,” according to the concentration website.

The contemplative studies department “brings together an interdisciplinary group of people that would very rarely interact with each other,” Loucks said, adding that the department is “not only a really interesting opportunity for students, but also a research platform unlike any other in North America.”

“It’s a very solid research grant,” said Susan Smalley, founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Center and professor emeritus of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles, who is not involved with the research. “There’s still a small body of research, and it’s so important that more of these studies happen.”  Smalley added that mindfulness would benefit both patients and scientists.

“Mindfulness really helps you be more open to observation” and “open-minded with the results,” she said, adding that mindfulness “really changed (her) relationship with science” and will continue to change science “by virtue of how it impacts the scientist doing the research.”


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