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Separate and Combined Effects of Mindfulness Meditation and Savoring on Pain-Related Corticostriatal Function

University of Utah Investigator / Project Lead:


Prime/Overall Principal Investigator (PI) / Project Lead:

Finan, Patrick, PhD, at Johns Hopkins University

Funding Organization:

National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary & Integrative Health

RFP / FOA Number:


Award Number:


Funding Period:

7/1/2019 – 12/31/2021

Total Funding:

$ 1,005,568

Project Status:



Project Description:

Mindfulness meditation holds promise as an intervention to reduce rheumatoid arthritis pain and the degree to which pain interferes with patients’ daily life. By investigating the separate and combined effects of mindful breathing—an elemental form of mindfulness—and savoring—a cognitive practice that promotes positive emotions—on pain-related brain function, our project will inform the development of targeted and specific mindfulness-based interventions for patients with rheumatoid arthritis.



The purpose of this R61/R33 project is to determine and optimize the neural mechanisms supporting mindfulness-based pain relief in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients. The scientific premise is that RA patients’ use of an elemental mindfulness meditation practice—mindful breathing (MB)—and a positive emotion generative practice—savoring (SAV)—during noxious thermal stimulation will alter activation in the corticostriatal circuits. Further, an intervention that combines MB and SAV—mindful savoring (MB+SAV)--will optimize corticostriatal engagement and improve RA clinical outcomes. The corticostriatal circuits are attractive neural mechanisms of the putative benefits of mindfulness for RA because directly support cognitive appraisals of aversive stimuli and reward valuation, which are behavioral targets of our interventions. Target corticostriatal regions include the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (LOFC), which supports top-down control of attention and emotional appraisals, and the nucleus accumbens (NAc), which supports positive emotion regulation and reward appraisals. The behavioral output of the corticostriatal circuits is especially relevant for patients with RA, due to the flaring, unpredictable nature of RA pain and the importance of positive emotional function for RA pain coping. In the R61 phase, we will randomize RA patients to a brief 4-session (20-25 minutes each) course of MB (n=20), SAV (n=20), or a sham MB control (n=20). At post-intervention, participants will undergo functional MRI (fMRI) using a perfusion-based arterial spin labeling (ASL) technique during noxious thermal stimulation to determine if MB and SAV are associated with corticostriatal activation when compared to rest, as well as a Sham MB control. In the R33 phase we will randomize RA patients to 4 sessions of MB (n=30), SAV (n=30), or MB+SAV (n=30). Pre- and post-intervention ASL scans will be obtained using the same protocol as in the R61. Additionally, the secondary clinical outcomes of pain severity, unpleasantness and interference, disease activity, and fatigue will be obtained at pre-intervention, post-intervention, and weekly for 3 months. We propose that MB will increase cerebral blood flow (CBF) in the lOFC during noxious thermal stimulation, and SAV will decrease CBF in the NAc, relative to the CBF response to noxious stimulation during rest. We further propose that MB+SAV will optimize engagement of both regions to a greater extent than either MB or SAV alone. We expect that optimizing the engagement of the lOFC and NAc will be associated with improved RA clinical outcomes. Our approach will identify reproducible mechanisms and link them to RA chronic pain outcomes. Our interventions will be ready to disseminate because they are brief and require minimal provider contact. Our results will inform the development of new mindfulness intervention protocols that are guided by neural mechanisms, thereby increasing the efficiency and precision with which they are applied to patients with RA.



  1. Finan PH, Hunt C, Keaser ML, Smith K, Lerman S, Bingham CO, Barrett F, Garland EL, Zeidan F, Seminowicz DA. Effects of Savoring Meditation on Positive Emotions and Pain-Related Brain Function: A Mechanistic Randomized Controlled Trial in People With Rheumatoid Arthritis. medRxiv [Preprint]. 2023 Sep 8:2023.09.07.23294949. doi: 10.1101/2023.09.07.23294949. PMID: 37732231; PMCID: PMC10508795.
  2. Finan PH, Hunt CA, Mun CJ, Lerman SF, Tennen H, Smith MT, Haythornthwaite JA. Association of affective state with the assimilation of daily pain expectancy and pain experience. Pain. 2022 Nov 1;163(11):2254-2263. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002624. Epub 2022 Mar 7. PMID: 35439798.
  3. Huhn AS, Finan PH. Sleep disturbance as a therapeutic target to improve opioid use disorder treatment. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2022 Dec;30(6):1024-1035. doi: 10.1037/pha0000477. Epub 2021 Jun 10. PMID: 34110889; PMCID: PMC8660927.
  4. Aaron RV, Finan PH, Wegener ST, Keefe FJ, Lumley MA. Emotion regulation as a transdiagnostic factor underlying co-occurring chronic pain and problematic opioid use. Am Psychol. 2020 Sep;75(6):796-810. doi: 1037/amp0000678. PMID: 32915024.
  5. Mun CJ, Letzen JE, Peters EN, Campbell CM, Vandrey R, Gajewski-Nemes J, DiRenzo D, Caufield-Noll C, Finan PH. Cannabinoid effects on responses to quantitative sensory testing among individuals with and without clinical pain: a systematic review. Pain. 2020 Feb;161(2):244-260. doi: 1097/j.pain.0000000000001720. PMID: 31613869; PMCID: PMC7162682.

For a complete list of publications supported by this grant, go to



This project has yielded the following findings: 1) Savoring Meditation (SAV) engages aspects of the corticostriatal circuits during the experience of pain, including the nucleus accumbens and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. 2) SAV is acutely analgesic, resulting in a significant reduction in pain ratings to noxious thermal stimuli relative to rest. 3) SAV increases positive affect. 4) SAV decreases anhedonic symptoms. 5) SAV does not alter negative affect. 6) SAV increases experiences of self-transcendence.

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Last Updated: 10/26/23