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The life science summer projects have started! Student gets to test new innovative method to treat chronic pain

Psychology student Emma Eriksson is part of the team at the University of Oslo and Oslo University Hospital that will test a new innovative treatment on Norwegian patients with chronic pain. The method involves meditative breathing with monitoring on smartphones at home.

Student Emma Eriksson tests the leg pressure equipment on PhD fellow Charles Ethan Paccione. Soon she will welcome real patient to the room.

Emma Eriksson is a first-year student at the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo. She is one of the 41 lucky students, who have been offered a grant from UiO:Life Science to work on a life science research project this summer.

For a period equivalent to six weeks’ full time work, Emma will work on the project Body versus Machine: Motivational Nondirective Resonance Breathing versus Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation for the Treatment of Chronic Widespread Pain at the Department of Pain Management and Research at Oslo University Hospital, Ullevål (see facts).

Is involved in the whole process from planning to publishing

Better methods to treat chronic pain will have broad implications for both the patient and society as a whole.

You might think that six weeks is too short to have any real impact on a project. But in Emma’s case this is certainly not true. She will be involved in many aspects of the study from the initial planning; to trying out and making the treatment manuals; to following up with patients and their pain; and contribute to results that can be published with her name on a scientific paper.

Meditative breathing is a treatment where the patients are trained to breathe deeply and at the same time be open to thoughts and feelings that might appear. They are equipped with a breathing belt and a holder for their smartphone. The two devices are connected in the app that contains instructions for the 15 minutes breathing sessions. The participants also register their heart rate variability, which is an indicator of psychophysiological wellbeing, and their pain intensity. Illustrations: The man versus machine project.

“I feel really lucky to also be a part of the planning and the project. Until now I have worked on the manual for the pre- and posttests and the patients’ own treatment at home”, says Emma.

Next week when the study begins, the researchers will meet patients for the pretest where they will test for chronic pain threshold and pain sensitivity using a pressure cuff on the leg. The patients will be randomized to either deep breathing or vagus nerve stimulation and take their treatments home for two weeks until they come back for their final test.

“The only way to learn”

Emma’s supervisor Charles Ethan Paccione who is a PhD fellow at the Faculty of Medicine at UiO, developed the meditative breathing method himself based upon his work in the US. He emphasizes that the use of the method in Norway requires knowledge about the Norwegian culture and means of communication. This is one contribution which Emma and the other three other young researchers bring to the project.

It is no coincidence that Emma gets to be involved in the whole project process. Paccione is determined that it is imperative to involve young talents in an innovative, interdisciplinary research field like this.

“They cannot learn only from data, they need hands on experience. They have to see people in pain and see what suffering is – it is the only way to learn”, he says.

Also, he sees several advantages in hiring open-minded young scientists who are not drenched in an established academic culture.

Met at the UiO:Life Science summer project matchmaking event

Emma Eriksson and Charles Ethan Paccione met for the first time at the poster session organized by UiO:Life Science in March.

Charles looked for a student that was hungry and autonomous, while Emma chose this project since she also wanted to work with patients.

“I had met one of the researchers at the pain department, Silje Reme, who is Professor at the Department of Psychology. She had talked about her work on pain and health psychology in the first semester, and she is a role model for me”, says Emma.

From theory to proof

Paccione and his supervisor Henrik B. Jakobsen recently had the first paper on the breathing method accepted in the top psychology journal Frontiers in Psychology.

This is a medical hypothesis and theory paper which outlines the treatment and describes why it may be a promising means of treatment.

The study that is to be carried out now, is the first study which will investigate the effects of this new meditative breathing technique on the vagus nerve, heart, and behavior in patients suffering from chronic pain. They will compare this with the effect of vagus nerve stimulation.

The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves that sends signals back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body. It is involved in a multitude of sensations ranging from pain, anxiety, motivation, and overall wellbeing.

Researcher Henrik Børsting Jacobsen (main supervisor) and Professor Audun Stubhaug (co-supervisor) at the Department of Pain Management and Research at Oslo University Hospital, are responsible for the study.


FACTS Body versus Machine: Motivational Nondirective Resonance Breathing versus Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation for the Treatment of Chronic Widespread Pain (CWP)

  • CWP affects one in every ten adults globally and is the leading cause of sick leave and emotional distress in Norway.
  • Due to a complex psychophysiology, CWP is a condition with few, if any, effective and safe treatment interventions.
  • Current research within the fields of meditation, deep breathing, and vagal nerve stimulation suggests integrative and non-invasive means by which CWP may be treated.
  • The study involves 112 patients from Department of Pain Management and Research at Oslo University Hospital, Ullevål.
  • Will investigate and compare the treatment efficacy of innovative noninvasive treatments on pain intensity and psychophysiological wellbeing.
    • Motivational nondirective resonance breathing (MNRB) is a new meditative-based deep-breathing which utilizes smartphone-guided deep breathing exercises to lower pain, stress, and increase activity in the vagal nerve.
    • Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) is a safe and noninvasive means of electrically stimulating the vagal nerve.
    • Each of these treatments stimulate the vagal nerve, but in very different ways — one through the breath and the other through electricity.These treatments are portable and will be given to all of the participants to take home to use twice a day for two weeks. Participant will record their heart rate variability (an indicator of psychophysiological wellbeing) with their personal smartphone.
  • Eight participants will take part in in a narrative medicine workshop prior to their treatments in order investigate how creative writing, reading, and reflection may affect the efficacy of onset treatment.
  • Will also measure the persons’ spirituality. That is their thoughts on the meaning of life, the meaning of a life with pain, how they are connected to nature etc.
  • The primary outcomes are changes in heart rate variability and self-reported pain intensity. Secondary outcomes are changes in pain detection threshold and tolerance determined by pressure cuff algometry, long-term stress regulation, blood pressure, and health related quality of life and behavior.
  • The project is funded by South-Eastern Norway Regional Health Authority.

FACTS The life science summer projects 

One of the tasks of UiO:Life Science is to recruit, educate and develop talented students. The summer project initiative is a beginning in this work.

The summer projects are intended to give the students practical experience of real research that addresses a social challenge within health or environment. It is also desirable that the projects give the students insight into interdisciplinary research.

This is the second year that UiO:Life Science offer students summer projects. 41 students have been offered a grant this year.

By Norunn K. Torheim
Published May 24, 2019 9:11 AM - Last modified May 24, 2019 9:31 AM