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Meditation Can Indeed Reduce Pain Sensitivity – Actually ‘Beefs Up’ Parts of the Brain

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“Meditative practices could be helpful in general for pain management, for preventing normal age-related grey matter reductions or potentially for any condition where the grey matter is compromised, such as stroke.”

People can reduce their sensitivity to pain by thickening their brain, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association journal, Emotion (“Cortical Thickness and Pain Sensitivity in Zen Meditators,” Feb 2010).

Researchers from the Universite de Montreal made their discovery by comparing the grey matter thickness of Zen meditators and non-meditators. They found evidence that practicing the centuries-old discipline of Zen can reinforce a central brain region (anterior cingulate) that regulates pain.

“Through training, Zen meditators appear to thicken certain areas of their cortex and this appears to underlie their lower sensitivity to pain,” says lead author Joshua A. Grant, a doctoral student in the Universite de Montreal Department of Physiology and Institut Universitaire de Geriatrie de Montreal.

“We found a relationship between cortical thickness and pain sensitivity, which supports our previous study on how Zen meditation regulates pain,” Grant adds. That study – “Pain sensitivity and analgesic effects of mindful states in Zen meditators,” published Jan 2009 in Psychosomatic Medicine – demonstrated an average 18% reduction in perceived pain intensity among experienced meditators.

As part of the new study, the scientists recruited 17 meditators and 18 non-meditators who in addition had never practiced yoga, experienced chronic pain, neurological or psychological illness.

Grant and his team, under the direction of Pierre Rainville of the Universite de Montreal and the Institut Universitaire de Geriatrie de Montreal, measured thermal pain sensitivity by applying a heated plate to the calf of participants and followed by scanning the brains of subjects with structural magnetic resonance imaging.

According to MRI results, central brain regions that regulate emotion and pain were significantly thicker in meditators compared to non-meditators.

“The often painful posture associated with Zen meditation may lead to thicker cortex and lower pain sensitivity,” says Grant, noting that meditative practices could be helpful in general for pain management, for preventing normal age-related grey matter reductions, or potentially for any condition where the grey matter is compromised such as stroke.

Partners in research:
This study was supported jointly by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research and a Mind and Life Institute Varela Grant.
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Source: University of Montreal news release, Feb 24,  2010

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