$6 Million Grant Creates Meditation Study Center

By Susan Lampert Smith

MADISON – Research at UW-Madison has already shown that meditation can change the brain. Now a new grant will allow a more in-depth investigation of how these changes can affect sleep, pain tolerance, emotion regulation and other measures of well-being.

A $6 million grant from NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) will create a new “Center for Excellence” on the Madison campus to study the brain changes created by meditating.

“This will be the most rigorous and comprehensive study of meditation that has ever been done in the history of scientific research,’’ said Richard Davidson, William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry.

Davidson, head of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, will head the new Wisconsin Center on the Neuroscience and Psychophysiology of Meditation. His fellow investigators are Giulio Tononi, professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine and Public Health, and associate scientist Antoine Lutz, of the Waisman brain imaging laboratory.

Dr. Josephine P. Briggs, NCCAM director said, the grant was passed on “strong preliminary work” and that all the new centers will apply complementary medicine approaches to “a wide range of health conditions and diseases that affect the American public.”

The Wisconsin Center on the Neuroscience and Psychophysiology of Meditation will study two groups of people who meditate.

In the first group are practitioners of insight meditation. It is an ancient practice that is said to promote well-being, emotional balance and concentration through self-observation, disciplined attention to thoughts, emotions and physical sensations of the body. Practitioners explicitly cultivate positive qualities such as loving-kindness and compassion.

In the second are people trained in a newer form of meditation, known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which is taught at UW Health and other hospitals to help patients cope with chronic illness and pain.

“While mindfulness mediation is commonly taught at medical centers, there has been little research done to understand how it works in the brain and the body,” Davidson said.

Over the next five years, volunteers will practice both types of meditation and participate in three studies:

  • The impact of insight meditation on emotional reactivity and emotion regulation. Davidson said that functional MRI (fMRI) and measures of peripheral physiology and endocrine function may help show “how changes in the brain influence the changes in the body that may be important to health.” One example could be inflammation, which plays a key role in diseases ranging from asthma to cardiovascular disease to wound healing.
  • The neural and behavioral measures of the impact of mindfulness meditation on attention and pain regulation.
  • The impact of meditation on spontaneous brain activity during sleep. This project will also use transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to probe changes in brain circuits and connectivity.

“At the end of five years, we should know how meditation works and what brain connections are exercised or strengthened,” Davidson said.

The grant creates one of the first federally-funded centers to study meditation. It follows a $2.5 grant from the Fetzer Foundation to use neuroscience to study how to foster compassion, love and forgiveness in children and adults. That work will be part of a planned “Center for Creating a Healthy Mind,’’ which will also study and teach meditation practices.

Of the latest grant, Davidson said: “It’s a testament to the team we’ve been able to assemble here at Wisconsin, which is clearly the best team working in this emerging area of science.”