Friday, March 07, 2008

Neuroscience: Chronic pain reduced by meditation, not medication

An interesting item from the news, offers hope for chronic pain sufferers through meditation:

The study, Published in the Journal of Neuroscience on February 6, indicates that in a “healthy” brain, there is a state of equilibrium between the different regions in the brain, with regions quieting down when others are active. However, for those in chronic pain, a front region of the cortex mostly associated with emotion “never shuts up,” according to Chialvo, the lead author of the study.

"The areas that are affected fail to deactivate when they should," Chialvo said. The fifteen people with chronic back pain in the study had permanent activity in the front cortex of the brain, rather than the equilibrium associated with “the resting state network of the brain,” he said.

Sounds pretty grim. But columnist Jackie Gingrich Cushman reports
There might be a simple way to combat this constant state of on – turning off the mind. Though this may seem simple to accomplish, it is not. The good news is that, according to “Train your Mind, Change your Brain,” by Sharon Begley, (Ballantine Books, 2007) our brains have the ability to not only grow based on mental training (i.e., thinking) but we can alter how our brains work and connect based on mental training through meditation. This means that we can train our brains and thereby affect our emotions.

That’s good news, because long term use of drugs can be debilitating as well as expensive. It’s better to use them in a strategic way, and make use of mental resources wherever possible.

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Service note

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.

Neuroscience: How far has “mind reading” got?

Well, according to a recent article in Nature News by Kerri Smith you can figure out what a person is seeing, if you already know what the possible sights are. But you won;’t know what the person thinks of it.

In the experiment, the brain activity of two subjects (two of Gallant’s team members, Kendrick Kay and Thomas Naselaris) was monitored while they were shown 1,750 different pictures. The team then selected 120 novel images that the subjects hadn’t seen before, and used the previous results to predict their brain responses. When the test subjects were shown one of the images, the team could match the actual brain response to their predictions to accurately pick out which of the pictures they had been shown. With one of the participants they were correct 72% of the time, and with the other 92% of the time; on chance alone they would have been right only 0.8% of the time.

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The next step is to interpret what a person is seeing without having to select from a set of known images. “That is in principle a much harder problem,” says Gallant. You’d need a very good model of the brain, a better measure of brain activity than fMRI, and a better understanding of how the brain processes things like shapes and colours seen in complex everyday images, he says. “And we don’t really have any of those three things at this time.”

[ ... ]

But it will be a long time yet before it applies to his own work, he says, because “we don’t have a good enough model for intentions".

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