Chronic pain is often treated with extended use of opioid analgesics, yet these drugs can alter the brain in ways that may make it difficult to cope with pain and may reduce the experience pleasure in life. Mindfulness-based interventions appear to be a promising means of addressing these issues, but research is needed to understand how such interventions change the brain to reduce suffering.
To that end, in September, 2016, I was recently awarded a five-year phased innovation grant from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health entitled Effects of Mindfulness-Oriented Intervention on Endogenous Opioid Mechanisms of Hedonic Regulation in Chronic Pain (R61AT009296). The objective of the project is to study the effects of an innovative mindfulness-based intervention on brain mechanisms linked with pain and pleasure.
In the first two-year phase of the study ($800,000), I (Principal Investigator), along with my Co-Principal Investigator Jon-Kar Zubieta (Co-Principal Investigator), chair of the University of Utah’s Department of Psychiatry, will use positron emission tomography (PET) neuroimaging to assess the effects of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) on restoring brain levels of endorphins in patients with chronic back pain who are being treated with prescription opioids.
This study represents the first use of PET in the history of science to quantify the effects of a mindfulness-based therapy on levels of endogenous opioids in the brain.
We will also use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) methods to assess how mindfulness training through MORE may increase people’s capacity to savor natural pleasure from positive and meaningful events in everyday life – a capacity that becomes diminished over time through the deleterious effects of chronic pain and prolonged opioid use on the brain. We will use a fMRI paradigm developed by my Co-Investigator Brett Froeliger, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at the Medical University of South Carolina.
This study aims to test whether MORE might reverse this insensitivity to natural reward by targeting the endogenous opioid system and brain reward functions.
Following a successful first phase of the project, a three-year second phase ($2.2 million) will investigate whether patients with a particular genetic makeup that affects the expression of opioid receptors in the brain might benefit more from the mindfulness-based treatment. The second phase of the project will also assess the dose of mindfulness skill practice as a predictor of changes in endogenous opioid function and clinical correlates.
Based on the results of previous research, we hypothesize that mindfulness meditation training through MORE will restore proper function to the brain’s opioid receptors. We will be able to measure how MORE changes the brain’s ability to regulate pain and respond to natural rewards, as well as deepen our understanding of exactly how these changes in neural mechanisms happen.
Overall, this project will unite expertise in mindfulness-based interventions with expertise in neurogenetics and the use of PET and fMRI to probe the neurobiological mechanisms of pain and emotional experience. By elucidating a key mechanism of meditation-based therapies, this program of translational research will further the emerging field of social work neuroscience and enable us to rapidly optimize MORE to increase the effectiveness of the intervention as it is rolled out in clinical practice.
I was recently awarded $3.4 million in research funding from the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program for a five-year clinical trial award entitled “Targeting Chronic Pain and Co-Occurring Disorders in the Community with Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement.” To help me to carry out this pragmatic, large-scale randomized controlled trial, I will be supported by an interdisciplinary team of expert co-investigators from the University of Utah, including Jon-Kar Zubieta, Craig Bryan, Yoshio Nakamura, Gary Donaldson, and Bill Marchand.
The co-occurrence of chronic pain, psychological distress, and misuse of prescription opioids undermines the mission of the U.S. Military and inflicts suffering upon Veterans and their families. Approximately one-half of service members have chronic pain following deployment, and nearly one-fifth engage in opioid misusing behaviors like unauthorized dose escalation and use of opioids to self-medicate stress and anxiety. The state of Utah (where the proposed study will be conducted) has one of the highest incidences of nonmedical use of opioids in the U.S. and a rapidly increasing rate of prescription opioid-related deaths. Indeed, an estimated 21% of Utah adults were prescribed opioids during the past year, of which approximately one-in-five report taking more than prescribed. Given that military personnel and Veterans have higher rates of pain-related conditions than the general population, their risk for opioid-related problems is significantly enhanced.
New scientific findings indicate that because stress worsens pain and increases habit responses in the brain, individuals who cope with stress and pain through opioids are likely to have the most serious and difficult-to-treat opioid-related problems. The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been marked by repeated deployments involving serious combat-related and occupational stress. Unfortunately, there are no evidence-based treatments that simultaneously address pain, opioid misuse, and psychological distress. To fill this gap, this research proposal aims to conduct a pragmatic trial of a novel integrative medicine approach combining Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) with conventional opioid pain management for service members and Veterans. MORE aims to strengthen self-control over habit behaviors, increase flexible thinking under conditions of stress, and promote the sense of reward and meaning in the face of adversity.
This research project will help active duty service members and Veterans with chronic pain and stress who are at-risk for opioid misuse, and will also inform the treatment of civilians with similar issues. Should MORE prove to be effective in a community-based context, it could be easily transported into military installations and Veterans Administration Medical Centers in the U.S. and around the world, as well as in communities where no major military medical center is present. In these settings, MORE could be offered as a form of standard integrative health care provided to service members and Veterans.
A secondary objective of the proposed project is to utilize lab-based assessments and mobile technology to understand how MORE works to create therapeutic change, and to predict whether and when service members and Veterans are at risk for relapsing back to opioid misuse. To accomplish this objective, lab-based assessments will evaluate physiological reactivity to cues associated with past episodes of pain and opioid use, and a smartphone-based assessment will be used to evaluate opioid craving, pain, and negative mood in “the real world.” Because changes in heart rate and other physiological factors may indicate the extent to which a person’s brain has been triggered by opioid craving, this application of mind-body assessments to predict opioid misuse risk and treatment outcomes could facilitate early risk detection.
The final objective of the project is to understand for whom MORE works best, to help ensure more efficient healthcare resource allocation to the service members and Veterans who need it most. The proposed project will enable health care providers to more effectively deliver low-cost treatment to prevent progression toward opioid addiction, thereby averting costly inpatient stays, discharge from active duty military service, and social, legal, and occupational problems among Veterans. Ultimately, the proposed research could significantly enhance the psychological and physical health of military personnel and Veterans by addressing the need for new integrative medicine treatment options with findings from the leading edge of science.
It is my pleasure to announce that the very first review paper summarizing the theoretical rationale and empirical evidence for Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) has been accepted for publication in the prestigious journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. In this paper, I review data from multiple clinical studies on the biobehavioral mechanisms of MORE, and articulate a hedonic regulatory model of the intervention – proposing that restructuring reward processing is the final common pathway through which MORE ameliorates addiction, stress, and pain. I map this novel theoretical model onto an earlier conceptual framework of the neural circuitry underlying mindfulness-centered regulation of addiction (Garland, Froeliger, & Howard, 2014) and then describe new neuroimaging and psychophysiological data in support of the model. The paper abstract is as follows:
“Though valuation processes are fundamental to survival of the human species, hedonic dysregulation is at the root of an array of clinical disorders including addiction, stress, and chronic pain, as evidenced by the allostatic shift in the relative salience of natural reward to drug reward observed among persons with severe substance use disorders. To address this crucial clinical issue, novel interventions are needed to restore hedonic regulatory processes gone awry in persons exhibiting addictive behaviors. This article describes theoretical rationale and empirical evidence for the effects of one such new intervention, Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE), on top-down and bottom-up mechanisms implicated in cognitive control and hedonic regulation. MORE is innovative and distinct from extant mindfulness-based interventions in that in unites traditional mindfulness meditation with reappraisal and savoring strategies designed to reverse the downward shift in salience of natural reward relative to drug reward, representing a crucial tipping point to disrupt the progression of addiction – something that no other behavioral intervention has been designed to do. Though additional studies are needed, clinical and biobehavioral data from several completed and ongoing trials suggest that MORE may exert salutary effects on addictive behaviors and the neurobiological processes that underpin them.”
I am feeling particularly thankful today to my colleagues Norman Farb (University of Toronto), Philippe Goldin (University of California – Davis), and Barbara Fredrickson (University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill), with whom I wrote and recently published the target article for the December issue of the esteemed, international journal Psychological Inquiry. Our target article, entitled “Mindfulness Broadens Awareness and Builds Eudaimonic Meaning: A Process Model of Mindful Positive Emotion Regulation,” articulates the Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory, a new conceptual model of the cognitive, emotional, and neurobiological processes by which mindfulness might stimulate positive psychological states and lead to a sense of meaning in the face of adversity. In brief, the Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory asserts that mindfulness allows one to decenter from stress appraisals into a metacognitive state of awareness that broadens attention to previously unnoticed pieces of information about one’s life, accommodating a reappraisal (i.e., a reframing) of adverse circumstances that reduces distress and promotes positive emotions. This reappraisal is then deepened and enriched when one savors what is pleasant, growth promoting, or meaningful in life, a process which motivates values-driven behavior and engenders a deeper sense of purpose and self-actualization.
The entire journal issue is devoted to the discussion of our new Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory. Our work was the subject of 10 erudite commentaries from leading scholars in the fields of contemplative science, addiction neuroscience, clinical psychology, affective science, psycho-oncology, social psychology, and consciousness studies, who extended, challenged, and pushed our theory into new and wider applications. We responded to the commentaries with our own article “The Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory: Extensions, Applications, and Challenges at the Attention–Appraisal–Emotion Interface,” which broadens the theory to address how mindfulness re-configures structures within working memory, describes mindfulness as a domain general resource for promoting emotion regulation flexibility, and suggests future directions to be pursued toward the establishment of a more comprehensive contemplative science.
May our work help advance the field to promote human flourishing!
Earlier this year, along with colleagues Marieke Wichers, Nicole Geschwind, and Frenk Peeters (Maastrict University and University of Groningen), I published a paper on the effects of mindfulness training on the dynamic change trajectories of positive emotions and thoughts over time. This study analyzed data from a randomized controlled study of 110 individuals with histories of depression who were randomly assigned to receive an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy intervention or a control condition. Study participants rated their experiences of positive emotions and thoughts on a daily basis using a method called “experience sampling” (also known as ecological momentary assessment, or EMA), in which they were prompted at random times throughout the day to describe their mental state in the midst of everyday life activities. To analyze this data, we employed a sophisticated statistical technique called multivariate autoregressive latent trajectory modeling (see the Figure above). We found that mindfulness training significantly enhanced positive emotions and positive thoughts from moment-to-moment. Importantly, we also found evidence that mindfulness training may stimulate an upward spiral of positivity, such that increasing experiences of positive emotions on one day stimulated positive emotions and thoughts on the following day, and so forth. In other words, it appears as mindfulness training can enhance positive emotion-cognition interactions that may be important to psychological flourishing (and physical health). These data provide support for my new Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory (see the Figure above), which will be featured on this website in a month or two when my paper about this theory will be published as the target article of the December issue of the esteemed international journal Psychological Inquiry and receive commentary by some of the leading contemplative scientists in the world. Stay tuned!
A research paper I published along with Adam Hanley (first author) in the journal Mindfulness has received an astounding amount of press, including coverage by the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, and television outlets like the Today Show! This deceptively simple study involved randomly assigning college students to read a passage by Thich Nhat Hanh on mindful dishwashing or a textual description of dishwashing procedures like what might be found in a home economics textbook, Then students washed a sink full of dirty dishes, and then completed state measures of mindfulness and positive and negative emotions. After controlling for differences in baseline tendencies towards mindfulness and well-being, we found that individuals who received the mindful dishwashing induction reported significantly deeper states of mindfulness, as well as some improvements in positive and negative emotions following dishwashing. Perhaps most interestingly, people who engaged in mindful dishwashing reported a slowing of perceived time (that is, they overestimated the length of time they spent washing dishes) – a finding that is consistent with research on “flow states” and other studies of mindfulness (e.g., Berkovitch-Ohana et al., 2012). As we note in the published paper, it is fascinating to observe “that a task potentially construed as unpleasant or a “chore” can be experienced as reducing nervousness and being inspirational by simply shifting one’s approach to the task and the quality of attention” (Hanley et al., 2015, p. 1101). This simple study has implications for research on mindfulness, suggesting that the informal practice of mindfulness during everyday life activities may be an important means of cultivating attention and awareness in much the same way as formal mindfulness meditation. More research is needed to outline the differences and similarities between formal and informal mindfulness practices.
I have been honored by being selected as a University of Utah Presidential Scholar. According to the press release, “the Presidential Scholar award was created to support the work of exceptionally promising mid-career faculty at the University of Utah.” The purpose of the award is to honor “individuals who are significant contributors to scholarship, education, and outreach at the University of Utah.” The Presidential Scholar awards provide three years of support for scholarly, teaching, and/or outreach activities. I intend to use this award to support my research on Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement as a treatment for addiction, stress, and pain.