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Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience indicates that meditation has more potent pain-relieving effects on the brain than morphine or other pain-relieving drugs that reduce pain by 25 per cent. This study is the first to show dramatic reduction in both the brain activation related to pain, and the experience of pain itself.
“We found a big effect – about a 40 per cent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 per cent reduction in pain unpleasantness,” said lead author of the study, Fadel Zeidan, Ph D and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Medical Centre.
During the study, 15 healthy volunteers without prior experience of meditation attended four 20-minute classes on a type of meditation technique called focused attention. In this type of mindfulness, practitioners attend to their breath and release distracting emotions and thoughts.
Utilising arterial spin labelling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI), the researchers examined participants’ brain activity. ASL MRI captures longer interval brain processes, including meditation, than a regular brain function MRI scan. Scans done before and after meditation training showed activity in the primary somatosensory cortex of the brain significantly dropping from very high to undetectable; this area creates the sensation of intensity and location of a painful stimulus.
The participants had pain induced in their right legs with a device that heated a tiny patch of their skin over 5 minutes to 120° F, a temperature painful to most people. Scans done on participants after meditation instruction showed decreased pain ratings in every participant, with a reduction range of 11 per cent to 93 per cent.
Interestingly, meditation caused increase in activity in the anterior insula, orbito-frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex areas of the brain. Robert Coghill PhD, associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and senior author of the study said, “These areas all shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals that are coming in from the body.”
He explained that increased activation of these areas by meditation corresponded to improved pain reduction. “One of the reasons that meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was that it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing.”
Speaking about the huge potential of meditation for use in clinical settings, Zeidan and his associates highlighted the briefness of the training needed to cause a dramatic pain-relieving effect. “This study shows that meditation produces real effects in the brain and can provide an effective way for people to substantially reduce their pain without medications,” said Zeidan.