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NCCIH Research Blog

Studying Mindfulness Through Neuroimaging Studies: Current Funding Opportunities

March 25, 2021

Wen G. Chen, Ph.D.

Wen Chen, Ph.D.

Branch Chief and Program Director

Basic and Mechanistic Research in Complementary and Integrative Health Branch

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

View biographical sketch

Research suggests that mindfulness may be helpful for a variety of conditions including depression, stress and related conditions, insomnia, and some painful conditions like chronic low-back pain. It might also help with smoking cessation and reducing the use of addictive pain therapies such as opioids. Additionally, it has been shown to enhance brain-computer interface performance, a hopeful sign for alternatives to direct motor control. 

But what does research show in terms of actual changes in people’s brains? Do mindfulness-based interventions alter brain function?

Through neuroimaging studies, researchers have identified and examined multiple brain regions shown to be influenced by long-term mindfulness-based interventions (8 weeks or more), including the frontal cortical areas involved in attention, the cingulate cortex and insular areas involved in the interoceptive/default mode network, the amygdala and frontoparietal network involved in emotional regulation, and deep brain structures such as the striatum, thalamus, and putamen. These studies and others have indeed added to the converging evidence supporting the impact of mindfulness on specific brain regions and networks.

A 2020 study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, which was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), led to an exciting advance in neuroimaging and mindfulness. Researchers applied multivoxel pattern analysis to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) neural data to quantitatively assess time spent in the different mental states during meditation, including attention to breath, mind wandering, and self-referential processing. This resulted in a promising measurement tool for something that had not been objectively measured before, and it may enable future rigorous research on the mechanisms through which meditation and mindfulness impact mental and physical health.

NCCIH recently funded research that used fMRI in 19 identical twin pairs and found that task-related brain activity patterns were highly similar between the twin pairs in brain areas associated with goal-directed attention control. The researchers are also determining whether mindfulness-based training in one twin member results in enhanced brain functioning not seen in the untrained twin member.

With the stress and social isolation many are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic and with an ongoing opioid and chronic pain epidemic, there is a continued need for nonpharmacologic treatment options. The neuroimaging research on mindfulness thus far holds much promise for mindfulness-based interventions. 

If you’re interested in conducting neuroimaging studies on mindfulness, NCCIH has two current funding opportunities. Priorities include:

  • Uncovering novel brain activities and neural networks that may be influenced by long-term mindfulness meditation practices
  • Identifying how the brain processes information when it is undergoing mindfulness meditation
  • Combining neuroimaging with other non-neural system assessments to ascertain the impact of mindfulness on the entire body physiology
  • Determining whether neuroimaging technologies can be developed into biomarkers to assess treatment response or predict treatment outcomes of mindfulness-based interventions

To apply, please reach out to me (chenw@mail.nih.gov) or other program directors listed under “Scientific Contacts” in the Notice of Special Interest (NOSI) early to discuss your potential project and how it aligns with the overall goals of these funding opportunities.

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