In December 2020, I gave a lecture on my research entitled “Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement Heals Opioid Misuse and Chronic Pain by Restructuring Reward: From Hedonic Pleasure to Self-Transcendent Meaning” to the Brown University Contemplative Studies Initiative. Following this talk, I enjoyed a fascinating dialogue about the relationship between mindfulness and self-transcendence with a leading scholar of Classical Chinese Philosophy and Taoism, Hal Roth, PhD. The video of my talk is below. Enjoy!
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 am excited to announce that a scientific article I wrote with my colleagues Brett Froeliger (Duke University), Steven Passik (Vanderbilt University), and Matthew Howard (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) was recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. This article details the first evidence of an attentional bias toward prescription opioid cues ever documented in the scientific literature! We found that among a sample of people with chronic pain who were prescribed opioid painkillers, those individuals who met diagnostic criteria for opioid dependence paid significantly more attention to opioid-related images than opioid-users in chronic pain who were not dependent on opioids. To measure attention to opioids, we used a neurocognitive task that looked something like this:
Participants were shown two pictures (displayed either for 200 ms, or 2000 ms), side by side, on a computer screen, and were asked to “choose the side with the dot” by clicking a button on a keypad. The computer recorded their reaction times down to the millisecond. We found that, compared to non-dependent opioid users, opioid dependent people were significantly faster to choose the side with the dot when the dot replaced an opioid photo than when it replaced a neutral photo. This reaction time difference indicated that their attention was captivated by opioids. Also, the more they reported craving their opioid medication, the more their attention was biased towards the opioid photos. This effect was evident for cues presented for 200 ms (that’s one-fifth of a second!), suggesting that this attentional bias occurred automatically, unconsciously, and before participants even had time to think about what they were doing.
So what does this research mean in terms of helping people with addiction and chronic pain? The study findings suggest that people who take opioids for chronic pain may develop an automatic tendency to be fixated on their medication, even when they don’t want to be. This tendency might make it difficult to stop thinking about opioids, causing craving, distraction, or other kinds of disruption in life. It might even lead to taking more medication than is necessary, although the current research study cannot answer that question.
If future studies replicate these findings, the opioid attentional bias may be an important treatment target for people struggling with prescription opioid misuse and addiction. Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) is designed to address attentional bias and may be particularly helpful in that regard. My preliminary research on MORE as a treatment for alcoholism found that MORE had a significant effect on attentional bias for alcohol cues. Research is currently underway to determine if MORE can have a similar effect on the opioid attentional bias.
I am honored to have the opportunity to discover new ways of helping people heal and recover from the challenges in their lives. For the past several years, I have been busily engaged in developing a new therapy for people struggling with chronic pain and problems with prescription opioid painkillers through a study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. I first developed this new therapeutic approach, which I call Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement, for an earlier study I conducted on alcoholism that was funded by a Francisco Varela Award from Mind and Life Institute. Mindfulness is an expansive and fundamental concept that has been pursued for millennia as a means of ameliorating suffering – look for more posts here soon about it. I am studying how this new treatment compares to a conventional support group. Support groups are a widely-used form of psychological support for people dealing with health and mental health issues that can be extremely helpful.
My approach to helping people is focused on promoting the basic goodness and inherent capacity for growth that lies within each person. I have a lot to say on this topic, but my latest thoughts can be summed up with an image:
In a way, this upward spiral of mindfulness, meaning, and positive emotion may be viewed as the converse of the downward spirals of addiction, stress, and pain that have become a modern day epidemic.