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Translational research is where the rubber meets the road. It’s where investigators get to see where relatively modest amounts of meditative practice can make potentially significant differences. CIHM scientist Lisa Flook is interested in exploring prevention and early-intervention strategies to promote well-being at a young age and is studying the impact of introducing mindfulness practices in educational settings. “Mindfulness could offer many benefits to children’s mental and physical health,” Flook says. “It could help children and adolescents improve their daily well-being and decrease stress. And the best place to test this is in school settings.” Flook is collaborating with Laura Pinger, a senior outreach staff member with CIHM and a teaching affiliate at the UW Hospital Integrative Medicine Center for Mindfulness who serves as a liaison between CIHM and local schools, developing and teaching programs and curriculums focused on mindfulness meditation, which are then used in CIHM research projects.

Two of the areas Flook and Pinger have been collaborating on are a pre-kindergarten kindness project and a teacher wellness program.

Four- and five-year-olds from two classrooms at a university preschool participated in the kindness program, beginning in fall 2010. The center developed a curriculum consisting of about ten hours of instruction over eight weeks. Three lessons lasting twenty to thirty minutes each week included breathing and movement exercises to develop awareness, readings related to kindness and caring, and activities that gave children an opportunity to be kind toward one another.

Students in one of the classrooms engaged in the kindness curriculum, while students from the other served as a control group. (They received instruction when the testing was completed.)

Flook says they tested the thirty or so students in both classrooms before and after the curriculum. “We examined the effects of the training on students’ attention and emotion regulation, relationships with classmates, and prosocial behaviors,” she says. “Children completed computer tasks measuring their attentional ability. Teachers completed reports of the children’s behavior in the classroom, while parents reported on children’s behavior at home. Our research suggested that there were improvements in attention and increases in prosocial behaviors among children who received instruction.” Pinger adds that the preliminary results of this pilot project suggest “this curriculum may help to promote self-regulation for children in this age group and improve their social and academic competence. The students, the teachers, and the parents were all delighted to take part.”

The goal of the teacher wellness program was to increase attention and awareness while decreasing stress. The center worked with the Madison Metropolitan School District to carry out and evaluate the effects of mindfulness training for elementary school teachers. As a longtime teacher herself, Pinger is very enthusiastic about this research, especially since teacher burnout, particularly in tough school districts, is a nationwide problem. About twenty kindergarten to grade five teachers participated in the study during the 2010-2011 academic year. It involved almost twenty-four hours of training in an eight-week modified MBSR program that consisted of weekly two-hour sessions, daily homework, and a full day of mindfulness practice. The training included mindfulness of breathing, body sensations, emotions, and thoughts; mindful movement; and kindness practices.

The researchers compared assessments done before and after the training program across a number of measures, including performance of cognitive tasks, physiological markers of stress (via saliva sampling), observation of teachers’ behavior in the classroom by research staff, and self-reports by teachers. Teachers reported increased mindfulness and well-being and reduced stress, and demonstrated more effective teaching behaviors. Flook says the work she and Pinger have done with teachers suggests that “mindfulness training can enhance teachers’ sense of well-being. It can also provide a buffer against the stress that arises from the demands and challenges of the classroom environment.”

Melissa Rosenkranz ’s quest is to understand the circuitry in the brain that causes psychological stress and negative emotion to affect the immune system in negative ways and, conversely, causes “positive psychological events and mental flourishing to affect the immune system in salubrious ways.” She first became interested in mind-body medicine in high school when she saw a PBS special on psychoneuroimmunology—the research domain she now works in. On the show, they gave a drug to people who had lupus at the same time that they introduced them to a novel scent. Afterward, their immune system responded to the scent alone, without the drug. This showed that the immune system responds to classical conditioning—just like Pavlov’s dogs salivating when they heard the bell even though no food was available. “The way I learned it,” she says, “the immune system appeared to be a separate entity driven by the threats it was exposed to, not by action in the brain.”

What grabbed Rosenkranz was “just how much power the brain can have over the health of the body. The idea of psychosomatic illness was also interesting to me—that you could experience symptoms that the brain was totally responsible for generating.” The first study she worked on with Davidson was a now well-known study he did with Jon Kabat-Zinn that showed that after three months of meditation training, employees of a Madison biotech company demonstrated increased activation in the “left prefrontal cortex,” a condition associated with enhanced joy and energy. The subjects also showed a boost in immune system function.

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