The neural mechanisms of mindfulness-based pain relief: a functional magnetic resonance imaging-based review and primer.

Author: Zeidan F1, Baumgartner JN1, Coghill RC2
1Department of Anesthesiology, University of California San Diego, San Diego, CA, USA.
2Department of Anesthesiology, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati, OH, USA.
Conference/Journal: Pain Rep.
Date published: 2019 Aug 7
Other: Volume ID: 4 , Issue ID: 4 , Pages: e759 , Special Notes: doi: 10.1097/PR9.0000000000000759. eCollection 2019 Jul-Aug. , Word Count: 290

The advent of neuroimaging methodologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), has significantly advanced our understanding of the neurophysiological processes supporting a wide spectrum of mind-body approaches to treat pain. A promising self-regulatory practice, mindfulness meditation, reliably alleviates experimentally induced and clinical pain. Yet, the neural mechanisms supporting mindfulness-based pain relief remain poorly characterized. The present review delineates evidence from a spectrum of fMRI studies showing that the neural mechanisms supporting mindfulness-induced pain attenuation differ across varying levels of meditative experience. After brief mindfulness-based mental training (ie, less than 10 hours of practice), mindfulness-based pain relief is associated with higher order (orbitofrontal cortex and rostral anterior cingulate cortex) regulation of low-level nociceptive neural targets (thalamus and primary somatosensory cortex), suggesting an engagement of unique, reappraisal mechanisms. By contrast, mindfulness-based pain relief after extensive training (greater than 1000 hours of practice) is associated with deactivation of prefrontal and greater activation of somatosensory cortical regions, demonstrating an ability to reduce appraisals of arising sensory events. We also describe recent findings showing that higher levels of dispositional mindfulness, in meditation-naïve individuals, are associated with lower pain and greater deactivation of the posterior cingulate cortex, a neural mechanism implicated in self-referential processes. A brief fMRI primer is presented describing appropriate steps and considerations to conduct studies combining mindfulness, pain, and fMRI. We postulate that the identification of the active analgesic neural substrates involved in mindfulness can be used to inform the development and optimization of behavioral therapies to specifically target pain, an important consideration for the ongoing opioid and chronic pain epidemic.

Copyright © 2019 The Author(s). Published by Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. on behalf of The International Association for the Study of Pain.

KEYWORDS: Meditation; Mindfulness; Pain; Placebo; fMRI

PMID: 31579851 PMCID: PMC6728003 DOI: 10.1097/PR9.0000000000000759