Gaëlle Desbordes, PhD

Research Interests


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Current work: Neuroscientific studies of meditation and compassion

I am conducting research studies to investigate meditation from a neuroscientific perspective, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and recordings of autonomic markers (cardiac, respiratory, and electrodermal). Most of these studies have been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

My main study is a clinical trial of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for major depression, with functional MRI brain scans before and after the intervention. This study is funded by NIH grant K01AT008225 (PI: Desbordes).

I am one of the project leaders on an NIH-funded Center of Excellence for Research on Complementary and Integrative Health investigating central and autonomic nervous system mechanisms of a mindfulness-based intervention for migraine (PIs: Napadow, Rosen).

I am site PI (leading the brain imaging component) of the MINDFUL-PC study directed by Zev Schuman-Olivier at the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) Center for Mindfulness and Compassion (CMC). This study investigates the impact of mindfulness training on self-regulation and adherence to medical regimen and is funded by a collaborative NIH grant (UH2AT009145, PIs: Loucks, Britton, King) as part of the NIH Science of Behavior Change research program.

MRI scanner Another study was a multisite investigation of meditation and mind-body health: the Compassion and Attention Longitudinal Meditation (CALM) study, in collaboration with Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, Chuck Raison, and Tad Pace at Emory University, Eric Schwartz at Boston University, and other collaborators. Rresults from this study were published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (Desbordes et al., 2012). This study was funded by NIH grants R01AT004698, R01AT004698-01A1S1 (PI: Raison), and ARRA RC1AT005728 (PI: Schwartz).

Another brain imaging study is an exploration of the neural and physiological correlates of more advanced forms of meditation practice which may enable top-down regulation of homeostasis mechanisms classically considered to be beyond voluntary control. This study is funded by a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind and Life Institute.

  • About the CALM study: Chuck Raison (2-min video)
  • About compassion meditation: Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi (4-min video), Matthieu Ricard (10-min video), Chuck Raison (3-min video).
  • Compassion Meditation: Mapping current Research and Charting Future Directions (Oct 2010, Atlanta, GA); with the Dalai Lama, Matthieu Ricard, Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, Chuck Raison, Richie Davidson, and other scientists and scholars. Full video: Part 1 (1.5hr), Part 2 (2hrs)
  • More on meditation research: International Symposia for Contemplative Studies, Apr 2012, Denver, CO (videos of the main talks are available), and other resources at the Mind and Life Institute; many talks on the science of compassion, organized by CCARE Stanford; Willoughby Britton's TEDx talk on why a neuroscientist would study meditation; and Cliff Saron's TEDx talk on the Shamatha Project, a rigorous, comprehensive research study of the many psychological and physiological effects of a 3-month meditation retreat.

Other projects

Our Mindfulness Research Collaborative recently published two opinion papers: "Mindfulness and cardiovascular disease risk: State of the evidence, plausible mechanisms, and theoretical framework" (PubMed) and "Moving beyond mindfulness: Defining equanimity as an outcome measure in meditation and contemplative research" (PubMed).
 
I am also collaborating with several colleagues at the Martinos Center, including Jon Polimeni and Vitaly Napadow. These projects include high-resolution mapping of the human insula and brainstem, neural mechanisms of itch and its treatment with acupuncture, and neural mechanisms of self-compassion for chronic pain.
 
I have collaborated with David DeSteno and Paul Condon (Northeastern University) to investigate how meditation training increases compassion. Our first results were published in the journal Psychological Science (PDF) and have been featured in the New York Times and on WBUR.
 
I have collaborated with Judson Brewer on real-time neurofeedback fMRI applications for meditation studies: see our 2013 NeuroImage paper.
 
I am also involved in other projects with Riccardo Barbieri with advanced assessments of autonomic nervous system functioning.
 

Postdoctoral work: Population coding in the early visual system

I was previously a postdoctoral fellow in Garrett Stanley's group, at Harvard University and then at Georgia Tech (in Atlanta). My work was on neuronal population coding in the early visual pathway. I was investigating the neural code in the Lateral Geniculate Nucleus (LGN) at the scale of small populations of neurons (n = 10-12 neurons).

Neurons convey information about the world in the form of trains of action potentials (spikes). These trains are highly repeatable when the same stimulus is presented multiple times, and this temporal precision across repetitions can be as fine as a few milliseconds. It is usually assumed that this time scale also corresponds to the timing precision of several neighboring neurons firing in concert. However, the relative timing of spikes emitted by different neurons in a local population is not necessarily as fine as the temporal precision across repetitions within a single neuron.

I showed that the temporal scale of the population code entering visual cortex is on the order of 10 ms and is largely insensitive to changes in visual contrast. Since closely timed spikes are more efficient in inducing a spike in downstream cortical neurons, and since fine temporal precision is necessary in representing the more slowly varying natural environment, preserving relative spike timing at a ~10-ms resolution may be a crucial property of the neural code entering cortex (Desbordes et al., 2008).

I then found that fine spike timing precision—within single cells as well as across nearby neurons in the local LGN population—was continually modulated as the visual stimulus unfolds, and that this modulation could be captured by a generalized linear model (GLM) that combines stimulus-driven elements with spike-history dependence associated with intrinsic cellular dynamics (Desbordes et al., 2010).
 
 

Last update: Jan 23, 2019