The candidate Dr. Helen Weng is seeking a K08 Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award for her immediate career goal to gain mentorship and training to develop the EMBODY Task, a more objective and precise fMRI measure of meditation practice that uses multivariate brain pattern classification methods. Dr. Weng earned her doctorate in clinical psychology researching the neurobiological mechanisms of compassion meditation with Dr. Richard Davidson, an expert in contemplative neuroscience. She is currently a postdoctoral scholar at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine (OCIM) at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in a NCCIH T32-funded fellowship, where she is studying mindful body awareness using neuroscientific and psychophysiological methods. Dr. Weng is rigorously trained in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study contemplative neuroscience; however, she is primarily trained in using standard univariate analyses, which collapse across spatial and temporal information within fMRI data. She recognized the potential limitations of these methods to study the complex and fluctuating mental states that occur during meditation practice, and aims to develop novel fMRI tasks that use multivariate methods (which utilize spatial and temporal variability within fMRI data) to study brain states trained by meditation. Obtaining this K08 to develop the EMBODY Task would support Dr. Weng?s long-term career goal of becoming an independent investigator of the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs). Dr. Weng?s career development plan includes training in the cognitive neuroscience of attention, fMRI pattern classification, and clinical trial methods to study meditation training. Dr. Weng has assembled a stellar mentoring team including top experts in cognitive neuroscience, mindfulness-based interventions, and pattern classification. Her primary sponsor and mentor, Dr. Adam Gazzaley (Director of the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center), is a world-class expert in the cognitive neuroscience of attention and neuroplasticity induced by app-based trainings. Her co-mentor, Dr. Rick Hecht (Research Director at OCIM) is a leading expert in clinical trials of MBIs. Her team also includes experts in fMRI pattern classification methodology (Dr. Bin Yu, Chancellor?s Professor, UC Berkeley; Dr. Melina Uncapher, UCSF) and cognitive neuroscience of internal attention (Dr. David Ziegler, UCSF). Dr. Weng?s training environment is at UCSF, a top NIH-funded research institution, and she will have access to state-of-the-art neuroimaging facilities at the Neuroscience Imaging Center and resources from OCIM, a flagship center for studying meditation. She will regularly meet and communicate with her mentorship team, and complete coursework, fMRI workshops, and training programs to fulfill her training goals. Dr. Weng?s K08 research proposal aims to develop the EMBODY Task, a novel fMRI task that uses brain pattern classification to decode the focus of attention during a period of breath meditation. This task will more accurately measure mental states during meditation by using precise information from individuals? unique neural signatures. The task will distinguish neural patterns associated with attention (breath attention) and inattention (mind wandering) to the breath, and use these patterns to identify fluctuating brain states during ten minutes of breath meditation. This will produce objective brain-derived metrics of breath attention such as percentage time spent in breath attention, which can then be used to objectively assess outcomes of meditation training. She will pilot, develop, and validate this task within long-term practitioners, meditation novices, and a separate group of novices who go through mobile app-based meditation training. Dr. Weng will use this data to prepare a future R61/R33 proposal that will use the EMBODY Task to more rigorously test the mechanisms of action of how mindfulness-based interventions improve clinical outcomes by training meditation skills.
Chronic pain is an enormous public health issue that affects 100 million Americans and costs more than $600 billion per year in treatments and lost productivity; and major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States (6.7% prevalence in 2014) and carries the heaviest burden of disability among mental disorders (World Health Organization, 2010). Mindfulness-Based Interventions improve symptoms in chronic pain and depression; however, we do not currently understand what meditation skills learned from mindfulness-based interventions improve symptoms in chronic pain and depression, and this information is needed to improve treatment. This proposal will develop a more accurate and precise measure of meditation practice using brain imaging methods (functional MRI) that can identify attention states during meditation practice.