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Emory studying mind-body interventions for trauma-related dissociation

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Jennifer Johnson McEwen

Emory University School of Medicine is part of a $3.8 million grant from the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health awarded to both Emory and University of Pittsburgh. Funding will support a clinical trial to test the mechanisms of new mind-body interventions for trauma-related dissociation. Dissociation is a disconnection between a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of who he or she is. 

Emory will serve as the trial’s primary site led by clinical neuropsychologist Negar Fani, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Researchers will recruit 200 people across the two sites seeking participants who have endured trauma and may be experiencing dissociation.

The project, which will span five years, will examine how new mind-body interventions, including breath-focused mindfulness with sensory feedback, affect attentional control and body awareness brain networks.Emory will primarily be recruiting through the Grady Trauma Project in partnership with Grady Hospital. 

“Many people who have experienced psychological trauma become very distressed when they pay attention to emotions and body signals, such as breathing,” says Fani.

“This distress can lead to feelings of detachment from their bodies and environment. Mind-body practices that involve present-centered attention and body awareness have shown improvements in clinical symptoms, like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in trauma-exposed people. However, these practices are particularly difficult for many dissociative people.”

The researchers’ goal is to determine if practices like breath-focused mindfulness can be made easier by using external sensory feedback and directly target attentional control and body awareness brain networks.

 “If this grant is successful, then we will be able to disseminate an affordable, wearable sensory feedback device to help trauma-exposed patients engage in mind-body practices more effectively. This treatment can be done on its own or to prepare for other treatments, like prolonged exposure therapy. We expect this to improve treatment accessibility, which is particularly meaningful for people who have multiple barriers to meeting their mental health needs, such as economic limitations.”

Fani’s clinical work and research at the Grady Trauma Project is centered around PTSD. She investigates the intersection of emotion and cognition in trauma-exposed individuals and uses these findings to guide mechanistically-targeted interventions. She also examines the neurobiological impact of race-related discrimination.

For more information on the study, please email gtpaffectneurolab@emory.edu or call (404)778-5767.