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Neuroscientist shares how light and sound can enhance meditation

Bay Stephens



By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer

Brain stimulation through ultrasound is called neuromodulation, and it could potentially be used to accelerate the benefits of meditation. Neuroscientist Jay Sanguinetti is at the cutting edge of what the human brain is capable of when aided by ultrasonic vibrations and electromagnetism.

Read more about his work and what he will share during his TEDxBigSky presentation on Jan. 26 and a special showcase of neuromodulation at the Santosha Wellness Center the following day, Jan. 27 from 1-3 p.m.

Explore Big Sky: What role has your training in philosophy played in your work as a neuroscientist?

Jay Sanguinetti: My philosophy training gave me a historical view of how thinkers have analyzed the nature of consciousness. This allows me to place my research within a historical context and to understand how the assumptions I make in my work are connected to the philosophical and rational traditions of the past.

EBS: In a nutshell, what is neuromodulation?

J.S.: Neuromodulation refers to the targeted delivery of energy, like electric fields, to specific sites in the body in order to alter neural activity. Neuromodulation is either invasive or noninvasive. Invasive neuromodulation involves surgically implanting electrodes in the body or brain to electrically stimulate a population of neurons. … Noninvasive neuromodulation … involves passing current, magnetic fields, or ultrasound across the skull without surgery.

EBS: What has your work with neuromodulation entailed so far? Where do you hope your research will lead?

J.S.: My research has focused on two main goals. First, I have investigated new noninvasive neuromodulation technologies like using ultrasound and light to stimulate the brain. Since the brain operates on electric and chemical signals, … many forms of energy, including mechanical vibrations (ultrasound) and light can … alter brain function. I have used these new technologies to try to enhance cognitive abilities and to accelerate meditation training and have found that wearing a light helmet while learning a new task can double the learning rate of new material.

Secondly, I have attempted to apply these new technologies to the treatment of mental disease. My team has found that transcranial ultrasound can enhance mood, which we are developing into a novel treatment for depression and anxiety.

My ultimate goal is to develop inexpensive, wearable neuromodulation devices that can be used to enhance well-being and to treat neurological and psychiatric disease. These technologies have the potential to alleviate suffering on a massive scale, especially when combined with meditation practice.

EBS: What led you to investigating neuromodulation as a mode of accelerating the benefits of meditation?

J.S.: When I was an undergraduate, I saw the Dalai Lama speak at a neuroscience conference. He encouraged the audience to develop an [invention] to give him the benefits of meditation without actually having to meditate so he could do other things like read about science. I became fascinated with this idea, [but] I needed to learn how to meditate first. One of the biggest challenges was finding the time to meditate. [So], it was natural to wonder whether I could use noninvasive neuromodulation to accelerate meditation practice.

EBS: How does your research stand to benefit humankind?

J.S.: Scientific experiments demonstrate that meditation has many positive health effects, from lowered blood pressure, less stress response and inflammation, and a better functioning immune system.  Meditation can reduce pain for chronic pain patients and can help [improve] psychiatric symptoms in depression and addiction.

Meditation [helps] helps us to counter negative emotions and thought patterns, instead fostering the conditions that give rise to happiness and well-being. By happiness, I don’t mean a fleeting emotional state, but instead the type of happiness that the Greeks spoke about, the kind that gives us full, rich, and meaningful lives. We come to see that the conditions for our happiness are not external—car, job, spouse—but instead come from the inside.

EBS: What are some themes that you will touch on during your talk at TEDxBigSky?

J.S.: My TEDxBigSky talk will give an overview of my current research with [meditation master] Shinzen Young, [in which] we are looking for a proper “technoboost” for meditation. Shinzen and I found a fascinating disorder of consciousness called athymhormia [that] gave us an interesting clue about where to stimulate in the brain to accelerate the effects of meditation. I will give an overview of this issue, show what the stimulation protocol looks like on a subject (Shinzen), and discuss the incredible effects we have discovered so far.

EBS: What will your special event at Santosha Wellness Center the Sunday after TEDxBigSky entail?

J.S.: I’m very excited about this event. We are inviting members from the community to experience a meditation technoboost themselves! … For the first part, I will show the ultrasound device to give the audience a sense of the technology so they can ask questions. For the second part of the event, people will get to try low-level light stimulation as they meditate, … wearing helmets with LEDs that emit near-infrared light into the brain. Near-infrared light enhances brain function and reduces inflammation, and decades of research demonstrate that it can be safely used on the body and brain. People who attend the event will get to meditate for 30 minutes or longer while they wear the light helmet and they should experience a boost to their meditative experience.

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