Tiffany Crawford: For centuries, yogis have imparted the secrets of healing through meditation and self-awareness.
Now researchers at the University of British Columbia say they’ve found a way to eventually help people combat depression or obsessive-compulsive disorders through similar methods using MRI technology.
In this first-of-its-kind study, published in the April edition of NeuroImage, researchers say participants were able to control their thoughts better when they watched their brain activity on a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) screen.
The research suggests that awareness of negative or detrimental thoughts — made possible by seeing them on a screen — allows research subjects to control those thoughts.
Many patients who suffer from depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive behaviour are not aware of negative thoughts, said co-author Kalina Christoff, a psychology professor at UBC. The technology could be used in the future as a tool to help them become more aware.
Participants in the study watched feedback on the fMRI from their rostrolateral prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for self-reflection.
They were asked to alternate their thoughts, in 30-second intervals over four six-minute sessions, between their external surroundings — their bodies, current events — and introspective thoughts.
The fMRI would only pick up the introspective thoughts that were being actively contemplated by the participant. Researchers were not told what the participants were thinking about.
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“If the bar is low that means you are not aware of your thoughts,” said Christoff. “You might be having thoughts you are not aware of. But if the bar is increasing it means you are successfully paying attention to your thoughts.”
People who are coping with anxiety, trauma or depression often have negative thoughts of which they are not aware — until they become angry or grumpy and snap at people, she said.
“We think this helps train you to become more self-reflective.”
Christoff said in followup training sessions, all the participants had higher scores of self-reflection and were much more able to observe their thoughts after the training than before.
By using the technology to target the areas of the brain responsible for self-reflection, Christoff said, people who battle depressive thoughts might be able to modify them as they become more aware of them.
“If a depressed person thinks, ‘The world is horrible and everybody is against me,’ and they don’t notice, it will bring their mood down and they’ll feel more depressed,” she said. “And because they feel that, they’ll have even more horrible thoughts.
“The way to break the cycle is to look at that thought and turn your attention and to say, ‘Well this is just a thought — it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.’ And often that improves the mood.”
The idea then would be to use the MRI technology in conjunction with cognitive behavioural therapy, a type of psychotherapy that aims to help people struggling with depression learn to recognize that their thinking can contribute to the sad moods and despair.
“We’d like to see if we can speed up this process or enhance it by having additional MRI training sessions that can tell them whether or not they are becoming aware,” said Christoff.
The study could also have implications for treating people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Soldiers who come back from Afghanistan, for example, often have obsessive thoughts. And so with the MRI training psychologists could help them “catch” repetitive thoughts before they do too much damage.
Christoff admitted the process was very similar to meditation, a practice that is included in many disciplines of yoga.
“By training your thoughts anyone can benefit. You don’t have to have a clinical condition. This is very similar to meditation. And in that similarity these training methods could have the same benefits that meditation can have. You are training yourself to be more aware.” © Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun