Since the onset of the pandemic, more people have been seeking out alternative methods to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and other mental disorders with meditation as an increasingly popular choice.
With over 35 million adults saying they have tried meditation at least once, the number of people engaging in this practice has tripled since 2012. This increase is also reflected in the meditation & mindfulness industry, now estimated to be worth about $1 billion.
However, many people who try mindful meditation, which requires high levels of discipline and can bring up painful memories, are unable to stick with the practice long enough to reap the benefits that improve depression, anxiety and other conditions.
Our 2020 grantees Dr. Joseph “Jay” Sanguinetti, assistant director of the University of Arizona’s Center for Consciousness Studies, and Prof. John J. B. Allen, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, are developing a non-invasive technique to help people feel the benefits of mindfulness more quickly, and thus stay with the process, creating a cycle of benefits.
Making the most of meditation: Facilitating mindfulness training with ultrasonic waves
By fostering an attitude of acceptance and emotional resilience, mindfulness through meditation has proven effective for many people struggling with mental and emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression. The ancient practice has risen sharply in popularity recently, partly due to the stress of the pandemic, with the number of adults who say they have meditated at least once tripling since 2012. But feeling the benefits of mindfulness also requires a high level of discipline and commitment over many months. It is only with dedicated practice of intense meditation that the brain will enter what experts call a state of equanimity, or acceptance, which is ultimately what improves one’s mood and boosts energy while reducing stress.
Unfortunately, data shows that most people are unable to maintain a regular practice of mindfulness long enough to achieve this equanimity and reap its long-term benefits. Developing the discipline that mindful meditation requires, and sticking with it regularly can be especially challenging for those who need it the most. For example, people with depression can experience a ‘backdraft effect’ where mindful meditation ends up making them feel worse in the short term – triggering past traumas and depressive thoughts, which makes them less likely to stick with the practice for the long term, when it can eventually have a positive effect.
But, what if achieving mindfulness was less of a struggle? What if there were a shortcut to training the brain to benefit from such practice early-on, motivating people who need it the most to commit to a more effective practice? This is exactly what our scientists, Dr. Joseph “Jay” Sanguinetti, assistant director of the University of Arizona’s Center for Consciousness Studies, and Prof. John J. B. Allen, a Distinguished Psychology Professor at the University of Arizona, are working to achieve. Their goal is to harness technology to get more people to equanimity quicker and keep them on the path towards mindfulness long enough to really change their lives and improve wellbeing.
A Modern Day Approach to an Age-Old Practice
Dr. Sanguinetti and Prof. Allen are currently working to see if using ultrasound waves to modulate brain activity of those who are new to practicing mindfulness helps them achieve the powerful benefits of this practice more quickly. This will lay the groundwork towards developing a hand-held ultrasound brain stimulator, and allowing more people to easily and effectively incorporate mindfulness into their lives. This targeted and focused research will go beyond the apps and other existing technological efforts that aim to facilitate mindfulness today, which often fall short because of their generalized approach.
So far research already shows enticing results: Participants who underwent transcranial focused ultrasound (tFUS), an emerging non-invasive technique to temporarily modulate neural activity, while engaging in meditation reported feeling profound inner peace after just weeks of practice. They said their thoughts flowed more freely, and they felt merged with their surroundings, two long-established characteristics of those who practice long-term mindful meditation.
The researchers say that meditation can improve following the delivery of these low intensity ultrasound waves, which are proven safe, because they help reduce activity in the brain’s default mode network (DMN), a system of brain regions that show less activity when someone is concentrating and focused. In fact, MRI results show that long-term practitioners of mindful meditation have significantly reduced DMN activity. In other words, the ultrasound waves can facilitate and possibly amplify the calming effects of mindful meditation on the brain, creating a cycle where one feels the benefits faster and more significantly, which, in turn leads to more routine practice and more benefits.
Mindfulness tailored to the individual
Our grantees also recognize that embracing a successful routine of mindfulness is not a one -size-fits-all practice. Therefore, their ongoing research also includes a personalized phone app, tailored to each individual to help them overcome their own barriers such as traumatic memories and negative thoughts that might come up with meditation. In addition, the ongoing research includes a wide range of participants, including healthy individuals as well as those suffering from chronic pain, depression and anxiety.
The research could be groundbreaking in that it could eventually lead to a practical solution that will enable more people to incorporate mindfulness into their daily lives. While the research is currently lab-based, relying on a prototype of an ultrasound stimulator, along with regular MRIs, they hope it will lead to an easy-to-use handheld device that can then be used in clinics and wellness retreats later this year, and maybe, someday, by people at home.
Most meaningful life changes require meaningful efforts to get there, and that’s where many people get stuck in our modern, busy world. We believe that technology holds the key to making life-changing practices, including mindful meditation, more accessible and practical, allowing them to truly have deep and long-lasting effects. We are excited to embark on this journey with Dr. Sanguinetti and Prof. Allen and their teams, and we are confident that this partnership will take this technology from the lab out into the world, yielding incredible results for the human experience.