New insights into the effect mindfulness has on the brain’s pain regulation have been revealed, which could help pave the way for more targeted treatment of pain.

Latest research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds has highlighted the changes to pathways in the brain which regulate pain when mindfulness is employed.

Mindfulness – the practice of a ‘present-centred’ awareness of mind and body – has already shown promising results in clinical outcomes. It teaches people how to respond to pain with less distress, which can eventually help to reduce pain itself.

This latest research looked at the effect of UW-Madison’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, and is the first to show pain-related changes in the brain following a mindfulness course.

Importantly, these changes were not seen in people who took a course that did not include the mindfulness element, which researchers say highlights how the brain changes are a result of the mindfulness training itself.

Joseph Wielgosz, who led the work as a graduate student at UW-Madison and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, said: “Our finding supports the idea that for new practitioners, mindfulness training directly affects how sensory signals from the body are converted into a brain response.”

For the study, the brains of the participants were scanned as a controlled heat stimulus was applied to their arm.

Researchers also examined the effects of long-term mindfulness training, with Wielgosz saying: “Just like an experienced athlete plays a sport differently than a first-timer, experienced mindfulness practitioners seem to use their mental ‘muscles’ differently in response to pain than first-time meditators.”

The findings have led the team to say it could provide a model for further research, which could help to deepen understanding of the complex nature of pain.

The study has been published in full in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

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