Dr. Michael Datko is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Osher/Harvard Medical School Research Fellowship in Integrative Medicine. He is based at the Cambridge Health Alliance Center for Mindfulness and Compassion. Read about his work studying the neural effects of integrative cognitive/behavioral interventions, such as mindfulness meditation training, in this interview by Osher Research Assistant, Esme Goldfinger.
Q: Tell me about your research interests
I am a cognitive neuroscientist by training, and I use neuroimaging techniques such as functional MRI to study the neural effects of integrative cognitive/behavioral interventions such as mindfulness meditation training. In the past I have studied neurofeedback training, which is related to meditation in some ways because of the sustained focus and attention it requires. I am currently working on multiple studies examining the effects of mindfulness meditation training in patients with depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and migraine. More specifically I am focused on how meditation can lead to changes in interoceptive awareness, and how a change in perception of one’s internal bodily sensations (via meditation training) can be associated with improvements in clinical outcomes for patients.
Q: How did you find yourself in this unique position of using modern neuroimaging techniques to understand integrative interventions?
MD: There were three main factors that led me to cognitive neuroscience. One, I always had a strong interest in science while growing up, including biology, astrophysics, chemistry, etc., which is interesting given that no one else in my family was in a scientific profession. Two, I grew up with parents who were/are meditation teachers, so I had an early introduction to the technique and to meditator communities. Third, I became aware of work by neuroscience researchers like Richie Davidson, who in the mid-2000’s used techniques such as EEG and MRI to study long-term meditators. I felt that this research combined my scientific curiosity with my personal background with meditation. These papers came out while I was completing my undergraduate degree, and inspired me to apply to psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience graduate programs.
Q: What has been your most exciting or impactful finding?
MD: In one current project, working with Drs. Zev Schuman-Olivier and Vitaly Napadow, we are studying the effects of mindfulness as a treatment for patients with depression and anxiety. We looked at neural and behavioral measures of interoceptive attention before and after an 8-week mindfulness intervention. One interesting preliminary finding from this work is that mindfulness training seems to have differing effects on brain areas involved in body awareness depending on a patient’s type and severity of mood disorder (i.e. depression vs. anxiety).
Q: How do you hope your research impacts the populations you study?
MD: I am interested in doing meditation research in clinical populations because I think that it can be an effective and accessible way to relieve suffering. The skills learned during meditation training empower people to handle both everyday stressors as well as stress associated with mental illness. My hope is that research can be used to discover how meditation differentially affects people at different points on the mental health spectrum, which could then inform the design of more personalized mental health treatments.
Michael Datko, PhD is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Osher/Harvard Medical School Research Fellowship in Integrative Medicine. He is based at the Cambridge Health Alliance Center for Mindfulness and Compassion, and has a dual appointment at the MGH Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging. Dr. Datko completed a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego. His research interests include meditation and mindfulness as clinical interventions, interoceptive awareness, and functional MRI.