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Award-Winning Research Affirms Use of Hypnosis in Eliminating Pain

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Helen Crawford knows from previous research that some people can use hypnosis to eliminate or ameliorate pain. Her quest now is to determine why those people can–and others can’t.

Crawford, professor of psychology in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, researches the neurophysiology of hypnosis, pain control, and attention, and, more recently, the genetic determinants of hypnotizability. Her work has such a presence in the international world of hypnosis research and has made such lasting contributions that she received the 2003 Ernest R. Hilgard Award for Scientific Excellence from the International Society of Hypnosis. The award is named for a Stanford University professor who was a pioneer in hypnosis research, past president of the American Psychological Association, and member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Crawford has current projects with research scientists from several countries. She is working with scientists in Israel on the genetic determinants of hypnotizability, with colleagues in Austria on emotion and laterality, and with researchers in Romania and Spain on attentional correlates of hypnotizability.

She and her colleagues in Israel, for example, have shown that there are genetic underpinnings to hypnotic susceptibility. They demonstrated a relationship between hypnotic responsiveness and a genotype that predicts performance on prefrontal executive (supervisory) cognition and working memory tasks. This finding supports Crawford’s model of hypnosis that highly hypnotizable people “have a stronger attentional filtering system associated with the far fronto-limbic attentional system” than do people who are not as hypnotizable.

Crawford previously proposed that, during hypnotic analgesia, the anterior frontal cortex of the brain plays a major role in “an inhibitory feedback circuit that cooperates in the regulation of thalamocortical activities.” Her work has examined the neurophysiological correlates of hypnosis and pain control using brain-wave activity and functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques with Virginia Tech undergraduate and graduate students in her Neurocognition Laboratory. Her neuroimaging studies demonstrate that, during hypnotic analgesia, highly hypnotizable people have more physiological flexibility involving an active inhibitory process of supervisory, executive control by the anterior frontal cortex interacting with and modulating other parts of the brain. In other words, the executive functions of their frontal lobe can better work with other parts of the brain in inhibiting the perception of pain from coming to consciousness.

Crawford has worked with several physicians in the Blacksburg area to test her work in more applied settings. With a group of individuals with chronic low-back pain, she and her colleagues demonstrated, several years ago, that most were moderately to highly hypnotizable and could reduce or eliminate experimental pain such as that caused by holding a hand in ice-cold water. “Most exciting,” she said, “was that these individuals, once they learned hypnotic analgesia techniques in the lab, were able to transfer the learned ability to help control their own back pain. Their psychological wellbeing went up and their depression and levels of pain went down.”

More recently, in an ongoing study with dentist John Gregg, who also teaches at Virginia Tech and at the College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, and Cristian Sirbu, a visiting colleague from Babes-Bolyai University in Romania, Crawford demonstrated similar findings within a sample of people with temperomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, a dysfunction of the jaw joint that can cause such problems as headaches, facial pain, and neck aches. They found that people with the disorder are often moderately to highly hypnotizable and able to control experimental pain with training. “Thus hypnosis is an excellent behavioral adjunct to more traditional approaches to pain control such as medications,” Crawford said. Crawford recently was invited to address the German Pain Society’s annual meeting in Aachen, Germany, and the Association for Applied Psychophysiological and Biofeedback’s annual meeting in Florida.

Her other work, done in conjunction with Neal Castagnoli and Kay Castagnoli of the Peters Center for the Study of Parkinson’s and Other Diseases of the Central Nervous System, includes examining the effects of heavy smoking on the brains of healthy young adults and the biopsychosocial differences between teenagers who are smokers or non-smokers.

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