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Dr. Seminowicz Studies Brain Responses to Meditation Therapy

Written by Adam Zewe

Could meditation be effective at treating some types of chronic pain? That's a question Assistant Professor David Seminowicz, PhD, and his collaborators hope to answer through a clinical trial and brain imaging study.

Dr. Seminowicz and his collaborators at Johns Hopkins University recently received a five-year, $3.3 million grant for their project, "MRI outcomes of mindfulness meditation for migraine." Researchers will teach migraine sufferers to utilize mindfulness meditation techniques that could help alleviate some of their chronic pain. The scientists will use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study how the patients' brains are affected by the treatment. Mindfulness meditation involves breathing exercises, restful postures and mental relaxation. "The mindfulness meditation program we are using was created to reduce stress. Now, it is used to treat a whole number of neurological and psychological disorders," remarks Dr. Seminowicz.

Using an MRI machine, Dr. Seminowicz will take brain images of patients before and after they complete the mindfulness meditation class. His analysis will focus on the structural makeup of brain matter as well as functional areas of brain activity. Chronic pain patients tend to have reduced gray matter in certain areas of their brains. Brain function is also affected by chronic pain. The pain creates an additional cognitive load, which means patients must utilize more brain resources to perform a task. Typically, chronic pain patients also show heightened responses to acute pain stimuli. "We are interested in seeing if this treatment will reverse some of those brain abnormalities," he says.

He will also study the potential for using brain imaging to predict the likelihood of successful treatment with mindfulness meditation. "Our hope is that in the not-too-distant future, clinicians will be able to analyze areas of a patient's brain and determine whether or not a specific treatment will be effective," Dr. Seminowicz states.

This project feeds into a growing area of research in the brain imaging field. Scientists around the world are studying the entire wiring system of the human brain to determine what constitutes normal brain structure and function. They hope to develop deeper understandings of how the "normal" brain can be altered by different conditions.

Dr. Seminowicz is excited for the opportunity to study how chronic pain fits into the spectrum of normal brain function. He hopes his research leads to improved treatments for chronic pain conditions. "The brain is fascinating. We still know very little about it. The things we are learning with brain imaging now, we didn't know 10 years ago. It is fun to be on the cutting edge of the field," he remarks.


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