I‘m pleased to announce that the first fMRI brain imaging study of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) has been published in the open-access journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (Froeliger et al., 2017). My colleague Brett Froeliger and I conducted this proof-of-concept pilot study at his TRAIN Lab at the Medical University of South Carolina to examine the effects of MORE on reward processes in the brains of people addicted to cigarettes. A sample of 13 smokers participated in a study testing MORE versus a comparison group. All participants underwent two fMRI scans 8 weeks apart. Between the first and second fMRI scan, participants in the MORE group learned mindfulness and reappraisal skills to decrease addictive reactions to cigarettes and savoring skills to increase responsiveness to natural rewards (e.g., social connection, natural beauty, healthy behaviors). Participants in the comparison group completed research measures but did not receive any treatment. Relative to the comparison group, MORE was associated with significant decreases in smoking (66% decrease) and significant increases in positive emotions. Crucially, MORE participants evidenced significant decreases in neural activity while viewing cigarette images in reward-related brain regions including the ventral striatum and ventral prefrontal cortex. MORE participants also demonstrated significant increases in neural activity in these same reward-related brain regions while they savored positive, natural-reward related images. Importantly, increases in brain activity during savoring were significantly correlated with smoking reduction and increased positive affect. Though this study had a number of limitations, including the small sample size and lack of a randomized design, these pilot findings provide preliminary evidence that MORE may facilitate the restructuring of reward processes and play a role in treating the pathophysiology of nicotine addiction. These findings converge with results from our other psychophysiological studies indicating that MORE may restructure reward processes in prescription opioid misuse (Garland, Froeliger, & Howard, 2014; Garland, Froeliger, & Howard, 2015; Garland, Howard, Zubieta, & Froeliger, 2017). Taken together, these data provide initial support for my restructuring reward hypothesis which asserts that mindfulness training may enhance a domain-general cognitive resource for restructuring reward learning from valuation of drug-related rewards to valuation of natural rewards and thereby reverse the downward spiral of addiction.
I recently learned that my research on Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) was highlighted on the National Institute on Drug Abuse website. The NIDA news story, entitled “Mindfulness training may reduce deficits in natural reward processing during chronic pain or drug addiction” details a study I conducted with my colleagues Brett Froeliger (Neuroscience, Medical University of South Carolina) and Matthew Howard (Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) that was published in April in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. According to the excellent summary of this research on the NIDA website,
“Drug-dependent people show decreased behavioral and brain reactivity to natural rewards compared to non-drug users. As a result, drug-dependent users increasingly focus their attention on obtaining the drug instead of attending to natural rewards. Recent research shows that a cognitive-based intervention may help restore natural reward processing in opioid-dependent participants.
In this study, chronic pain patients at risk for opioid misuse were randomized to either eight weeks of a Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) intervention or to an eight-week support group (control). Participants in the MORE intervention used mindfulness meditation to focus on all sensory features of a pleasant experience or object (for example, a beautiful nature scene like a sunset), while reflecting on any positive emotions arising in response to the pleasant event. The support group discussed topics and emotions related to chronic pain and opioid use/misuse. Following these interventions, all participants were shown images representing natural rewards (such as endearing animals, appealing foods, landscapes) or neutral images (furniture, neutral facial expressions, or household items). Researchers measured late positive potential (LPP) brain activity, which reflects attention to emotionally salient information, while participants viewed these images. In comparison to the control group, participants completing the MORE intervention showed greater LPP responses to natural reward images relative to neutral images and greater the LPP responses predicted reduced opioid cravings as reported by the participants.”
These results suggest that teaching people who misuse opioids to mindfully attend to positive aspects of their life may increase the perceived value of natural rewards – processes that may be diminished in those facing chronic pain or addiction – which may in turn help them to control opioid cravings.”
It is thrilling to see that this line of research is making a positive impact on the scientific community, and of course, the ultimate aim of this work is to alleviate human suffering.
Today I had a new paper accepted for publication in the prestigious addictions journal, Drug and Alcohol Dependence. This paper, coauthored with my colleague Matthew Howard, describes new findings from a randomized controlled trial of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement for chronic pain patients prescribed long-term opioid painkillers. The new findings demonstrate that the extent to which an individual finds his or her attention automatically captured by opioid-related images (e.g., the image of an opioid pill bottle) significantly predicts whether they will misuse opioids 20 WEEKS LATER after completing treatment.
Before patients participated in the research treatments, they completed a dot probe task in which they 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 people who did not misuse opioids at follow-up, people who ended up misusing opioids 3 months after completing treatment 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. 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. Even after statistically controlling for pain levels, opioid dependence, and pre-treatment opioid misuse, people with a stronger opioid attentional bias prior to entering treatment were significantly more likely to misuse opioids 20 weeks later than people with less attentional bias to opioids.
So what is the significance of this research study for 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 result in or foretell opioid misuse down the line, long after a person has completed treatment. Using a performance-based dot probe test delivered by computer to detect risk for future opioid misuse may help physicians and health care providers make more informed decisions about whether and when to prescribe opioids to patients suffering from chronic pain.
My colleagues and I recently had a new paper accepted for publication in the highly esteemed, international journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. This paper draws upon current neuropsychopharmacologic research to provide a conceptual framework of the downward spiral leading to opioid misuse and addiction among chronic pain patients taking prescription opioids for pain relief. In brief, we theorize that addictive use of opioids is the outcome of a cycle initiated by chronic pain and negative emotions, leading to attentional hypervigilance for pain and drug cues, dysfunctional connectivity between self-referential and cognitive control networks in the brain, and allostatic dysregulation of stress and reward circuitry. We conclude the paper by introducing Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) as a potentially effective approach to disrupting the downward spiral. This is a particularly exciting publication for our research team, because it lays the theoretical groundwork for developing new and innovative efforts to help people recover from chronic pain and opioid addiction.
My colleague Matthew Howard and I recently had a paper accepted for publication in the internationally-recognized journal, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. This paper describes a subset of findings from a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement for chronic pain patients who have been prescribed long-term opioid treatment (e.g., oxycontin, vicodin) for pain management. The study is the first in the scientific literature to demonstrate that a mindfulness-oriented intervention can reduce the pain attentional bias. In this study, 67 individuals suffering from low back pain, neck pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other pain conditions were randomly assigned to participate in MORE or a support group and began treatment.
Participants in the MORE group received instruction in applying mindfulness and other psychological techniques to: discriminate between nociception (i.e., the signal that the body is being damaged), pain, and suffering; become aware of their automatic pain coping habits; disrupt the link between negative emotions, fear of pain, and catastrophizing; refocus attention from pain and stress to savor pleasant experiences; manage pain and opioid dependence; reduce stress; promote acceptance versus suppression of difficult experiences; and develop a mindful recovery plan. Mindfulness training involved meditation on breathing and body sensations, with an emphasis on metacognitive awareness and shifting from affective to sensory processing of pain sensations. In other words, participants learned to step back and observe their pain as innocuous sensory information rather than as an emotionally-anguishing event – e.g., seeing their pain as “sensations of heat, tightness, tingling, or coolness” rather than “terrible agony.”
Participants in the support group were led to disclose their feelings and thoughts about topics related to chronic pain and opioid-related problems, as well as to provide advice and emotional support for their peers. The format of the support group was similar to conventional support groups used in many medical and psychotherapy settings.
We hypothesized that MORE would help participants to fixate less on their pain – freeing them to refocus on the meaningful, beautiful, or rewarding aspects of their lives. To measure attentional fixation on pain, or pain attentional bias, we used a dot probe task. In this task, participants were presented with two images, side by side, on a computer screen. One of the images was a pain-related image – the other was a neutral image. The images were presented for either 2 seconds or 200 milliseconds, and then were replaced with a dot. Participants were asked to press a button to indicate location of the the dot. Previous research demonstrates that chronic pain patients are faster to respond to pain images than neutral images, indicating that they exhibit an attentional bias, or attentional fixation, on pain-related information. Hence, people in chronic pain tend to automatically focus their attention on pain and things related to pain. This attentional fixation might occur unconsciously, without a person intending to focus on pain or even realizing that it is happening.
In summary of our study results, we found that MORE led to significant reductions in the pain attentional bias, whereas the support group did not have any effect on pain attentional bias. Importantly, participants in MORE who experienced the largest decreases in the pain attentional bias felt like they had greater control over their pain following treatment. In addition, those people who felt that MORE had helped them to become less reactive to negative thoughts and feelings also had less pain attentional bias following treatment.
In conclusion, MORE appears to help people suffering from chronic pain and opioid-related problems learn to free their minds from fixating on pain, and in so doing, empower them to regain control of their lives.
An article written by my colleagues Charlotte Boettiger, Susan Gaylord, Vicki West Chanon, and Matthew Howard and I was recently published in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research. This article describes the relationship between the tendency to be mindful in everyday life and the alcohol attentional bias among people in recovery from alcoholism. As described in the post below, attentional bias is the phenomena in which a person’s attention may be automatically captured by or fixated on an emotionally-significant object or event. Among alcoholics, cues associated with drinking tend to have a strong emotional importance – the sight of a bottle of liquor, an old drinking buddy, or familiar bar can automatically grab their attention and trigger the urge or craving to drink. This alcohol attentional bias can be measured in the laboratory using a dot probe task very similar to the one pictured in the post below, by asking participants to press a button to indicate the location of a target that replaces either an alcohol-related or neutral photo.
In the study described in our paper, we tested 58 people in long-term treatment for alcoholism with a dot probe task to measure their alcohol attentional bias. We also gave them questionnaires assessing their former drinking behavior, their level of craving, and the extent to which they reported to be mindful. These people had never received formal mindfulness training, but instead had received standard substance abuse treatment services. We found that individuals who classified themselves as having higher mindfulness actually had less attentional bias towards alcohol cues than people who classified themselves as being less mindful, regardless of how much they drank in the past or how much they craved alcohol.
Why is this important? The trait of mindfulness, that is, the tendency to be mindful in everyday life, is thought to involve being less reactive to difficult thoughts and feelings, less judgmental of yourself and others, more in touch with your emotions, more observant of sensory experiences (like the feeling of the wind in your hair or the sun on your face), and being aware of when you are acting out of habit or on “auto-pilot.” What makes the study findings so compelling is that the recovering alcoholics who thought they were more mindful (i.e., more aware of their habitual responses and less reactive to strong emotions) were the ones who were best able to shift their attention away from alcohol cues. In other words, they were better able to “disengage” their attention from addictive temptations and refocus on other things.
If people in recovery who are more mindful are less perturbed by addictive triggers, would explicit mindfulness training help them to overcome addiction? It’s not a wild stretch of the imagination to make this supposition. Indeed, my research on Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement shows that mindfulness has great promise as a treatment for alcoholism and other forms of addiction. But more research is needed!
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.