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.
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 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 the opportunity to speak about the treatment, neuroscience, and genetics of chronic pain with Dr. Dan Gottlieb, host of Voices in the Family, and Dr. Jeffrey Mogil, head of the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University, on radio station WHYY in Philadelphia (a local NPR station). I spoke about how negative emotions and stress can influence pain processing in the brain, and about how Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement can reduce the harmful impact of negative emotions on pain by teaching people to change the way they focus their attention and to reinterpret chronic pain as innocuous sensory signals from the body.
The entire interview can be found here:
Over the past several decades there has been an explosion of research demonstrating that our feelings and thoughts are closely tied to the function of our brains, so much so that the 1990s were heralded as the “Decade of the Brain” by the Library of Congress and the National Institutes of Health. Neuroscience has come to have a powerful influence on our concepts of mental health, leading many people to believe that forms of psychological suffering like depression, anxiety, and addiction are caused by “biochemical brain imbalances.” While this view has removed a great deal of the stigma that was once associated with chronic mental health problems, it also may send the implicit and unfortunate message that change and recovery is not possible. If depression, anxiety, and addiction are diseases of the brain, how can anyone possibly change their brain? Isn’t the function and structure of the brain, like any other organ, determined by genes and fixed from birth?
The answer emerging from neuroscience research of the past decade is an unequivocal “NO!” We now know that the brain grows and changes throughout childhood, adolescence, and even into adulthood and old age! A number of factors can stimulate changes in the brain, known as neuroplasticity, including stress, diet, exercise, and even learning experiences. So, if chronic states of depression, anxiety, and addiction are partially the result of brain dysfunction (and, to be clear, a number of scholars have raised serious and important challenges to the neurobiological model of mental illness), many scientific studies demonstrate that learning and practicing new ways of thinking, acting, and responding to the challenges in our lives can change the way our brains function! Research is beginning to demonstrate that the very structure of our brains can be modified by mental training, not unlike the way people lift weights to build the size and strength of their muscles through physical training.
So what does all this groundbreaking and fascinating science mean for the idea of recovery from mental health and substance abuse problems? It explains how addiction treatment and mental health services can help people who have been diagnosed with a mental and/or substance use disorder to transcend their challenges to live a healthy and meaningful life. Innovative ways of helping people recover are continually being developed and tested, with promising results. The Trinity Institute for the Addictions at the FSU College of Social Work is dedicated to advancing new methods of promoting recovery. Through my work at Trinity and through my prior work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I have developed a new type of mental training program for people struggling with addiction, mental health problems, and chronic pain called Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement, or MORE. MORE combines mindfulness training, cognitive-behavior therapy, and positive psychological principles into an integrative treatment strategy designed to help people increase self-control over their unhealthy habits and/or addictive behaviors, reduce their negative emotions (like feelings of anxiety, anger, and hopelessness), and improve their psychological well-being. I am currently conducting a clinical trial to test MORE as a way to combat chronic pain and problems related to prescription painkiller use – a growing epidemic in the U.S. and a frequent headliner in Florida’s news media.
Although this study is still in process, other studies suggest that mental training programs can be very helpful. For example, in previous research my colleagues and I found that mindfulness training reduced chronic pain symptoms by 38 percent and psychological stress by 31 percent! Another one of our studies indicated that mindfulness training helped people struggling with alcoholism to recover after being exposed to addictive triggers by calming their nervous system reactivity back towards baseline levels. Other research suggests that mental training programs including cognitive-behavior therapy and mindfulness training can alter brain function and significantly reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety, often with lasting positive effects.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential” (SAMHSA, 2011). The latest neuroscience findings on neuroplasticity and results from clinical research on psychological therapies like mindfulness training and cognitive-behavior therapy provide strong evidence for the notion that recovery from mental health problems and substance abuse is possible. Time and time again, cutting-edge science and clinical findings reveal a simple, hopeful, and powerful truth: treatment is effective, and people do recover.