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During selective attention, ∼7–14 Hz alpha rhythms are modulated in early sensory cortices, suggesting a mechanistic role for these dynamics in perception. Here, we investigated whether alpha modulation can be enhanced by “mindfulness” meditation (MM), a program training practitioners in sustained attention to body and breath-related sensations. We hypothesized that participants in the MM group would exhibit enhanced alpha power modulation in a localized representation in the primary somatosensory neocortex in response to a cue, as compared to participants in the control group. Healthy subjects were randomized to 8-weeks of MM training or a control group. Using magnetoencephalographic (MEG) recording of the SI finger representation, we found meditators demonstrated enhanced alpha power modulation in response to a cue. This finding is the first to show enhanced local alpha modulation following sustained attentional training, and implicates this form of enhanced dynamic neural regulation in the behavioral effects of meditative practice.
Evidence that placebo acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic pain presents a puzzle: how do placebo needles appearing to patients to penetrate the body, but instead sitting on the skin’s surface in the manner of a tactile stimulus, evoke a healing response? Previous accounts of ritual touch healing in which patients often described enhanced touch sensations (including warmth, tingling or flowing sensations) suggest an embodied healing mechanism. In this qualitative study, we asked a subset of patients in a singleblind randomized trial in irritable bowel syndrome to describe their treatment experiences while undergoing placebo treament. Analysis focused on patients’ unprompted descriptions of any enhanced touch sensations (e.g., warmth, tingling) and any significance patients assigned to the sensations. We found in 5/6 cases, patients associated sensations including “warmth” and “tingling” with treatment efficacy. The conclusion offers a “neurophenomenological” account of the placebo effect by considering dynamic effects of attentional filtering on early sensory cortices, possibly underlying the phenomenology of placebo acupuncture.
The scientific discovery of novel training paradigms has yielded better understanding of basic mechanisms underlying cortical plasticity, learning and development. This study is a first step in evaluating Tai Chi (TC), the Chinese slow-motion meditative exercise, as a training paradigm that, while not engaging in direct tactile stimulus training, elicits enhanced tactile acuity in long-term practitioners. The rationale for this study comes from the fact that, unlike previously studied direct-touch tactile training paradigms, TC practitioners focus specific mental attention on the body’s extremities including the fingertips and hands as they perform their slow routine. To determine whether TC is associated with enhanced tactile acuity, experienced adult TC practitioners were recruited and compared to age–gender matched controls. A blinded assessor used a validated method (Van Boven et al. in Neurology 54(12): 2230–2236, 2000) to compare TC practitioners’ and controls’ ability to discriminate between two different orientations (parallel and horizontal) across different grating widths at the fingertip. Study results showed that TC practitioners’ tactile spatial acuity was superior to that of the matched controls (P < 0.04). There was a trend showing TC may have an enhanced effect on older practitioners (P < 0.066), suggesting that TC may slow age related decline in this measure. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to evaluate a long-term attentional practice’s effects on a perceptual measure. Longitudinal studies are needed to examine whether TC initiates or is merely correlated with perceptual changes and whether it elicits long-term plasticity in primary sensory cortical maps. Further studies should also assess whether related somatosensory attentional practices (such as Yoga, mindfulness meditation and Qigong) achieve similar effects.