Mind-body practices and yoga may protect against neurodegenerative effects of chronic pain



Chronic pain debilitates millions of Americans each year. Current drug treatments often fail to relieve chronic pain, and have many side-effects when used long-term. Understanding the relationship between chronic pain and the brain is essential towards developing better treatments and helping patients better manage their pain.


IRP researchers led by M. Catherine Bushnell, Ph.D., showed that chronic pain is associated with reductions in brain gray matter volume, white matter integrity, and alterations in neural circuitry that resemble those seen in neurodegenerative diseases. Conversely, they found that yoga, a mind-body practice, has opposite effects on brain circuitry and structure.


The team’s findings suggest that chronic pain differs significantly from acute pain, and mind-body practices such as yoga may help protect against chronic pain’s effects on the brain. A clinical study is currently underway to examine the effects of yoga on the body’s stress response, pain perception, and the brain’s structure in response to pain.


Bushnell MC, Ceko M, Low LA. (2013). Cognitive and emotional control of pain and its disruption in chronic pain. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 14, 502-511.

Villemure C, Ceko M, Cotton VA, Bushnell MC. (2014). Insular cortex mediates increased pain tolerance in yoga practitioners. Cerebral Cortex. 24(10), 2732-40.

Ceko M, Bushnell MC, Fitzcharles MA, Schweinhardt P. (2013). Fibromyalgia interacts with age to change the brain. Neuroimage: Clinical. 6(3), 249-60.