Meditation and Chronic Pain
A recent Brown University study proposed that meditation can help patients manage their chronic pain. The study analyzed the intimate connection in mindfulness between mind and body, as meditation training begins with a highly localized focus on body and breath sensations.
The study’s researchers state that the repeated concentrated sensory focus enhances control over localized alpha rhythms in the primary somatosensory cortex, where sensations from different parts of the body are mapped by the brain. By learning to control their focus on the present somatic moment, researchers say, meditators develop a more sensitive “volume knob” for controlling spatially specific, localized sensory cortical alpha rhythms, thus enabling optimal filtering of sensory information. Meditators learn to control which body sensations they listen to, and also how to regular attention so that it does not lean toward negative physical sensations, like chronic pain.
The study team used a brain imaging technology called magneto encephalography (MEG) to show that alpha rhythms in the cortex correlate with sensory attention and that the ability to regulate localized alpha brainwaves on a millisecond scale is more distinct in people who have had standardized mindfulness training than in those who have not. The team also used a computer model that simulates the electrical activity of neural networks and predicts how the alpha rhythm is generated. One prediction from this study is to explain how gaining control of alpha rhythm not only enhances sensory focus on a particular area of the body, but also helps people overcome persistent competing stimuli, such as chronic pain signals.
The study proposes that training chronic pain patients in the standardized mindfulness techniques of focusing on and then focusing away from pain, should result in MEG-measurable, testable improvements in alpha rhythm control.
“By this process of repeatedly engaging and disengaging alpha dynamics across the body map, according to our alpha theory, subjects are re-learning the process of directly modulating localized alpha rhythms,” they wrote.
 Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, “Mindfulness starts with the body: somatosensory attention and top-down modulation of cortical alpha rhythms in mindfulness meditation,”Catherine E. Kerr, Matthew D. Sacchet, Sara W. Lazar, Christopher I. Moore and Stephanie R. Jones. http://www.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00012/abstract