New Tool in the Battle Against Opioid Addiction Could Be Mindfulness
More than 20 percent of American adults suffer from chronic pain. And as many as one in four of those prescribed opioids to manage that pain go on to misuse – or abuse – them, often with devastating consequences. Patients afflicted by both chronic pain and opioid addiction are especially difficult to treat, according to Eric Garland, PhD, Director of the University of Utah’s Center on Mindfulness and Integrative Health Intervention Development, because opioid overuse increases pain sensitivity, and pain promotes relapse among those being treated for addiction.
A new study, however, shows that a mindfulness-based therapy can successfully tackle both problems at once, pointing to a tool that could potentially help in fighting the opioid crisis. “This is the first large-scale clinical trial to show that any psychological intervention can reduce opioid misuse and chronic pain for the long term,” says Garland, lead author of the study, published February 28th in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Garland’s study focused on 250 adults who had received opioid therapy for chronic pain for 90 days or longer, randomly assigning them to eight weeks of either a standard psychotherapy support group or Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) therapy, which combines mindfulness training, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and positive psychology. Nine months after getting these treatments in primary care settings, 45 percent of patients in the MORE group were no longer misusing opioids, compared to 24 percent of those in group therapy. In fact, about a third of the patients in the MORE group were able to cut their opioid dose in half or reduce it even further.
Patients treated with MORE also experienced more significant pain relief than those in support groups, according to Garland. Conventional approaches to treating opioid addiction include 12-step programs and medically-assisted treatment using drugs like methadone and Suboxone, sometimes coupled with support groups. But patients with Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) – the official diagnosis for opioid addiction – have high relapse rates following treatment, especially if they have chronic pain.
While medically-assisted treatments help to control drug cravings, they do nothing to control chronic pain, which is where psychological therapies like MORE come in.
“For patients suffering from moderate pain and OUD, the relapse rate is three times higher than in patients without chronic pain; for those with severe chronic pain, the relapse rate is five times higher,” says Amy Wachholtz, PhD, Director of Clinical Health Psychology and associate professor at University of Colorado in Denver. “So if we don’t treat the chronic pain along with the OUD addiction simultaneously, we are setting patients up for failure.”
Unfortunately, notes Garland, the standard of care for patients with chronic pain who are misusing their prescribed painkillers is “woefully inadequate.” Many patients don’t meet the criteria for OUD, he says, but instead fall into a gray zone somewhere between legitimate opioid use and full-blown addiction. And while medically-assisted treatments help to control drug cravings, they do nothing to control chronic pain, which is where psychological therapies like MORE come in. But behavioral therapies are often not available in primary care settings, and even when clinicians do refer patients to behavioral health providers, they often prescribe CBT. A large scale study last year showed that CBT – without the added components of mindfulness training and positive psychology – reduced pain but not opioid misuse.
Psychotherapist Eric Garland teaches mindfulness.
University of Utah
Reward Circuitry Rewired
Opioids are highly physiologically addictive. Repeated and high-dose drug use causes the brain to become hypersensitive to stress, pain, and drug-related cues, such as the sight of one’s pill bottle, says Garland, while at the same time becoming increasingly insensitive to natural pleasures. “As an individual becomes more and more dependent on the opioids just to feel okay, they feel less able to extract a healthy sense of joy, pleasure and meaning out of everyday life,” he explains. “This drives them to take higher and higher doses of the opioid to maintain a dwindling sense of well-being.”
The changes are not just psychological: Chronic opioid use actually causes changes in the brain’s reward circuitry. “You can see on brain imaging,” says Garland. “The brain’s reward circuitry becomes more responsive when a person is viewing opioid related images than when they are viewing images of smiling babies, lovers holding hands, or sunsets over the beach.” MORE, he says, teaches “savoring” – a tenet of positive psychology – as a means of restructuring the reward processes in the brain so the patient becomes sensitive to pleasure from natural, healthy rewards, decreasing cravings for drug-related rewards.
Mindfulness and Addiction
Mindfulness, a form of meditation that teaches people to observe their feelings and sensations without judgement, has been increasingly applied to the treatment of addiction. By observing their pain and cravings objectively, for example, patients gain increased awareness of their responses to pain and their habits of opioid use. “They learn how to be with discomfort, whether emotional or physical, in a more compassionate way,” says Sarah Bowen, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Pacific University in Oregon. “And if your mind gives you a message like ‘Oh, I can’t handle that,’ to recognize that that’s a thought that might not be true.”
Bowen’s research is focused on Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention, which addresses the cravings associated with addiction. She has patients practice what she calls “urge surfing”: riding out a craving or urge rather than relying on a substance for immediate relief. “Craving will happen, so rather than fighting it, we look at understanding it better,” she says.
MORE differs from other forms of mindfulness-based therapy in that it integrates reappraisal and savoring training. Reappraisal is a technique often used in CBT in which patients learn to change negative thought patterns in order to reduce their emotional impact, while savoring helps to restructure the reward processes in the brain.
Mindfulness training not only helps patients to understand and gain control over their behavior in response to cravings and triggers like pain, says Garland, but also provides a means of pain relief. “We use mindfulness to zoom into pain and break it down into its subcomponents – feelings of heat or tightness or tingling – which reduces the impact that negative emotions have on pain processing in the brain.”
Eric Garland examines brain waves.
University of Utah
As the dangers of opioid addiction have become increasingly evident, some scientists are developing less addictive, non-opioid painkillers, but more trials are needed. Meanwhile, behavioral approaches to chronic pain relief have continued to gain traction, and researchers like Garland are probing the possibilities of integrative treatments to treat the addiction itself. Given that the number of people suffering from chronic pain and OUD have reached new heights during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Wachholtz, new treatment alternatives for patients caught in the relentless cycle of chronic pain and opioid misuse are sorely needed. “We’re trying to refine the techniques,” she says, “but we’re starting to realize just how powerful some of these mind-body interventions can be.”
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.