Catherine Kerr, PhD
Director of Translational Neuroscience, Contemplative Studies Initiative
Assistant Professor (Research), Department of Family Medicine
Does mindfulness-based somatic awareness (cultivated through attention to breath, body sensations) change the brain? Does mindfulness enhance attentional control of sensory cortical dynamics? Do chronic pain and rumination disrupt these dynamics? I use Magnetoencephalography (MEG) and other tools to investigate brain mechanisms underlying body-based attention and healing in mindfulness and other mind-body practices such as Tai Chi.
BiographyCatherine Kerr received a B.A. from Amherst College, and a Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University. Before arriving at Brown, she was at Harvard Medical School where her original focus was on developing innovative approaches for investigating placebo effects. In 2006, she received a K01 award from the NIH to investigate attention, somatosensory cortical dynamics and mindfulness, resulting in numerous publications including a report (Kerr, Jones, et al 2011) on the effects of mindfulness meditation on the ability to use attention to regulate a localized measure of cortical responsiveness (alpha rhythms recorded in primary somatosensory cortex). In 2011, she joined the Department of Family Medicine and the Contemplative Studies Initiative (for which she is Director of Translational Neuroscience) at Brown University. Her work has been published in Journal of Neuroscience, BMJ, Brain Research Bulletin and other journals, and has been covered in the New York Times, Technology Review and Forbes.
Research DescriptionOur research looks at the effects of mindfulness meditation and other mind-body practices on neuronal synchrony in order to understand how contemplative practices change the brain and the nervous system. The lab specifically focuses on sensory and motor cortical dynamics engaged by body-focused attention and body awareness since these processes are critical components of many contemplative practices.
Research projects in the lab center on five related questions:
How does body-focused attention modulate cortical synchrony?
For our studies of the basic science of neuronal synchrony during body-focused attention, we have used Magnetoencephalography (MEG) to investigate localized changes in cortical synchrony when subjects are cued to attend to a specific body area. We are especially interested in how attention modulates cortical oscillations since these oscillations are thought to affect neuronal firing. Our group, working closely with Dr. Stephanie Jones (Brown Neuroscience), was the first to discover how a cue to attend to the body modulates alpha rhythm power in a highly localized measure in the "body map." We are currently extending this work to investigate attentional modulation of long-distance alpha synchronies between prefrontal and sensory cortex. These basic science studies inform our investigations of mindfulness and mind-body training.
Does mindfulness training enhance control over somatosensory cortical synchrony in healthy subjects and chronic pain patients?
In healthy subjects, using MEG, our group found that mindfulness training gave practitioners faster and greater control over the localized expression of alpha synchrony in primary somatosensory cortex, which is an index that is thought to correlate with inhibition of synchronized neuronal firing. We are currently investigating attentional modulation of long-distance cortical synchronies related to mindfulness. In chronic pain, preliminary studies by other groups suggest that this sensory attentional mechanism is abnormal, as sensory attention is "captured" by the pain stimulus in a manner that disrupts normal daily information processing. Based on these data, we are planning a prospective examination of whether mindfulness normalizes alpha rhythm modulation in a chronic pain population. A better scientific understanding of basic sensory attentional brain processes in chronic pain and mindfulness will enable better and more targeted treatments.
Does Tai Chi elicit specific neuronal changes?
Work by our group and others suggest Tai Chi, with its intensive body-focused attention during the slow movement exercise, may bring about changes at the cortical and subcortical level. We continue to develop investigations in this area, along with our collaborator, Dr. Ge Wu (University of Vermont).
Can targeted mindfulness practice grounded in body-focused attention help medical students and physicians deal with stress?
We are currently developing brief mindfulness-wellness interventions for medical students and physicians. A key aspect of these interventions is that they try to achieve rapid uptake at low doses by developing body-focused attention across multiple multiple points of focus and multiple modalities including sitting and walking meditation.
Can collaboration with humanist and contemplative scholars help to generate novel scientific hypotheses?
Our lab investigates novel scientific hypotheses generated by engaging with millennia of contemplative thought and practice. For example, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, a landmark ancient text from the Buddhist Pali Canon, hypothesizes that a contemplative process for training happiness and stability of mind begins with body-focused awareness, setting out a theoretical construct that is not seen in the western psychological literature. Other examples of contemplative hypotheses relevant to meditation and tai chi can be seen in recent Daoist scholarship, as in, for example, Professor Hal Roth's formulation of Cheng (alignment) in ancient Daoist texts.
Grants and AwardsNational Mellon Fellowship for Graduate Study
Newcomen Society Prize, outstanding article by a graduate
student or junior faculty
Jacob Javits National Fellowship for Graduate Study
Mellon Dissertation Fellowship
Derek Bok Excellence in Teaching Award, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University
Funded Research1. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
(NCCAM) / NIH, R01 AT00402. Sham Device, Pill Placebo or Treatment for Arm Pain
2. NCCAM-NIH, R01 AT001414. Enhancing the Placebo Effect in Irritable Bowel
Syndrome. 2003-2006 Co-Investigator,
3. NCCAM-NIH, U19 AT002022. Part of NESA-Harvard Acupuncture Research
Collaborative. Acupuncture for Adolescent Endometriosis-Related Pain. 2004-2006. Co-Principal Investigator of Project 1.
4. NCCAM-NIH, R21AT002860. Integrative Healing Model in IBS. 2004-2006. Co-Investigator
5. NCCAM-NIH, K01AT003459, $649,755 Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on
Somatosensory Cortical Maps in Chronic Pain, 2006-2011. Principal Investigator
6. European Science Foundation Exploratory Workshop (EW08-024), Multidisciplinary
Workshop on the phenomenology and neuroscience of suffering, Co-Investigator, 2009
7. NCCAM-NIH, R21, R21AT004467. Measure of Body Awareness, 2009-2011. Co-Investigator
- Kerr CE, Sacchet MD, Lazar SW, Moore CI, Jones SR. Mindfulness starts with the body: Somatosensory attention and cortical alpha modulation in mindfulness meditation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 2013 (2013)
- Jensen KB, Petrovic P, Kerr CE, Kirsch I, Raicek J, Cheetham A, Spaeth R, Cook A, Gollub RL, Kong J, Kaptchuk TJ. Sharing pain and relief: neural correlates of physicians during treatment of patients. Mol Psychiatry. 2013 (2012)
- Kerr CE, Shaw JR, Conboy LA, Kelley JM, Jacobson E, Kaptchuk TJ. Placebo acupuncture as a form of ritual touch healing: a neurophenomenological model. Consciousness and Cognition 2011; 20(3):784-91. (2011)
- Kerr CE (co-first author), Jones SR, Wan Q, Pritchett D, Hamalainen M, Moore CI. Cued Spatial Attention Drives Functionally-Relevant Modulation of The Mu Rhythm in Primary Somatosensory Cortex. J Neurosci 2011; 30(41):13760-5. (2011)
- Kerr CE, Josyula K, Littenberg R. Developing an Observing Attitude: An Analysis of Patient Diaries in a MBSR Clinical Trial. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy 2011; 8(1):80-93 (2011)
- Kerr CE. Jones SR, Wan Q, Pritchett DL, Wasserman RH, Wexler A, Villanueva JJ, Shaw JR, Lazar SW, Kaptchuk TJ, Littenberg R, Hamalainen MS, Moore CI. Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Anticipatory Alpha Modulation in Primary Somatosensory Cortex. Brain Research Bulletin 2011; 85(3-4): 96-103 (2011)
- Kerr CE. Mind-body dualism redux?: Theory of mind and embodied simulation hypotheses in light of historical debates about perception, cognition and mind. Review of General Psychology. 2008; 12 (2): 205-214. (2008)
- Kaptchuk TJ, Kelley JM, Conboy LA, Davis RB, Kerr CE, Jacobson EE, Kirsch I, Schnyer RN, Nam BH, Nguyen LT, Park M, Rivers AL, McManus C, Kokkotou E, Drossman DA, Goldman P, Lembo AJ. Components of the placebo effect: randomised controlled trial in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. BMJ 2008; 336(7651):999-1003. (2008)
- Kerr CE, Shaw JR, Wasserman RH, Chen VW, Kanojia A, Bayer T, Kelley JM. Tactile acuity in experienced Tai Chi practitioners: evidence for use dependent plasticity as an effect of sensory-attentional training. Exp Brain Res 2008; 188(2): 317-322. (2008)
- Kerr CE, Milne I, Kaptchuk T. William Cullen and a missing mind-body link in the early history of placebos. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 2008; 101(2):89-92. (2008)
- Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Moore CI. Cortical dynamics as a therapeutic mechanism for touch healing. J Altern Comp Med 2007; 13(2): 59-66. (2007)
- Kaptchuk TJ, Stason WB, Davis RB, Legedza AR, Schnyer RN, Kerr CE, Stone DA, Nam BH, Kirsch I, Goldman RH. Sham device vs inert pill: randomized controlled trial of two placebo treatments. BMJ 2006; 332(7538):391-397. (2006)
- Lazar SL, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve DN, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, Fischl B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport 2005; 16(17):1893-1897. (2005)
- Kerr, CE. Translating "mind-in-body": two models of patient experience underlying a randomized controlled trial of qigong. Cult Med Psychiatry 2002; 26(4):419-447. (2002)