New OHSU-UO Collaborative Seed Grant

The SAN Lab and the Center for Translational Neuroscience have won a grant to pursue collaborations on translational neuroscience projects with our colleagues at Oregon Health and Science University through the OHSU-UO Partnership project.

Read more about our project, “Translational Neuroscience of Substance Use and Behavior Change Across the Lifespan” here. Congrats, team!

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Congrats Drs. Kahn and Livingston!

We are beyond thrilled to congratulate our latest lab alumni: Dr. Lauren E. Kahn and Dr. Jordan L. Livingston! We are so proud of everything you’ve done and where you’re going with your scholarship! Congratulations, Lauren and Jordan!

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Berkman Wins Early Career Award

Lab Director Dr. Berkman has won a 2018 Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions from the Association of Psychological Science! The announcement states that the Award “celebrates the many new and cutting edge ideas coming out of the most creative and promising investigators who embody the future of psychological science.” In his interview, Dr. Berkman writes about what winning the award means to him:

On a personal level, winning this award is compelling evidence that Imposter Syndrome exists at every career stage. It is humbling to be among the deeply impressive group of past and current winners. I do not feel I belong on the list! Professionally, I am glad that the type of work I do at the interface of social neuroscience and health and clinical psychology is appreciated by the wider field. I hope to use the award as an opportunity to draw attention to the innovative and impactful science that is happening in translational neuroscience. We think of the Center for Translational Neuroscience as only the most recent incarnation of a long tradition of creative integration between neuroscience and psychology at the UO led by people such as Jerry Patterson, Mike Posner, Steve Keele, Mary Rothbart, Helen Neville, and Don Tucker.

Congratulations, Dr. Berkman!


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We Are Hiring a Research Assistant!

The Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab is hiring a full time RA to work on our healthy eating intervention. The perfect person would be a bright, motivated, and conscientious postbac with an interest in translational neuroscience. We’ll begin reviewing applications at the end of May.

About the position

The Research Assistant is responsible for managing day-to-day scheduling, coordination, tracking, recruitment, and retention of subjects. The Research Assistant runs assessment sessions including neuroimaging, conducts telephone interviews, and works closely with the project coordinator and Principal Investigator to achieve project goals. Supervision and training of undergraduate staff and ongoing interaction with the internal review board for human subjects’ protection is also expected.

Full position description here:

About the project

This project, “Devaluing energy-dense foods for cancer control,” adopts a translational neuroscience approach to compare the mechanisms of action of two programs to change eating behavior. Excessive eating of energy-dense and obesity are risk factors for a range of cancers. There are programs to reduce intake of these foods and weight loss, but the effects of the programs rarely last. This project tests whether altering the value of cancer-risk foods can create lasting change and uses neuroimaging to compare the efficacy of two programs to engage the valuation system on a neural level. Results will establish the pathways through which the programs work and suggest specific treatments for individuals based on a personalized profile.

About the lab

Research in the SAN Lab investigates how motivational and cognitive factors contribute to goal pursuit using methods from social psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Our research program is guided by the belief that studying the intersection of basic neural processes, cognition, affective and motivational systems, and long-term behavioral outcomes is the best way to understand self-regulation and to develop novel interventions to help people be successful in their goal pursuit.

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How Does Meditation Pain Relief Work?

Below is a guest post by Lisa May describing her latest paper, “Enhancement of Meditation Analgesia by Opioid Antagonist in Experienced Meditators”, which is now out in Psychosomatic Medicine.


People who practice meditation for a long time get pain relief from meditation, but scientists don’t yet understand how the brain creates this pain relief. I ran a study to test whether meditation reduces pain by using the brain’s natural morphine, endogenous opioids. I thought that endogenous opioids might cause meditation pain relief because other forms of psychological pain relief, such as placebo effects, rely on endogenous opioids. I tested this idea by examining the effects of meditation on pain while endogenous opioids were turned on and again while they were turned off. If the pain relief people get when they meditate goes away when endogenous opioids are off, then I could infer that opioids cause meditation pain relief. That is what I thought would happen.

To test this idea, I worked with 32 healthy adults who had a long-standing meditation practice. These meditators were kind enough to let me deliver short bursts of pain to their hands, and then they reported their pain levels. We repeated the pain before and during meditation. Most of the people in my study (85%) felt less pain while they were meditating than when they were not.

This same group of meditators then did two more days of testing comparing their pain before and during meditation, but with a twist. On one day, I gave them a drug called Naloxone that blocks the brain’s ability to use opioids, meaning that the meditators couldn’t feel the effects of their natural morphine for a couple hours. On the other day, I gave them saline as a control because saline has no effect on how the brain processes pain. They didn’t know which day they got which drug, and I didn’t either.

Because Naloxone turns off the effects of endogenous opioids, I figured it would to one of two things. Naloxone could turn off pain relief during meditation, indicating that opioids cause meditation pain relief. Or, Naloxone could have no effect on people’s pain, indicating that meditation pain relief is caused by some other neurotransmitter. This drug has been used in a lot of pain research studies, and one of those two things always happens – either pain relief goes away, or there is no change in pain.

However, I found something totally new and surprising. Naloxone made the pain relief during meditation stronger! The actual results are shown in the figure below. This is the first time that a high dose of Naloxone has made pain relief stronger in a research study. What does this finding mean? First, it shows that meditation pain relief does not rely on endogenous opioids. The results also suggest that studying meditation could teach us important things about how the brain processes pain. Finally, we need to do more research to fully understand why turning off endogenous opioids made pain relief stronger. This study might teach us more about how to relieve pain without opioids.

Meditation pain relief enhanced by opioid blockade

Full citation info:

May, L. M., Kosek, P., Zeidan, F., & Berkman, E. T. (in press). Enhancement of meditation analgesia by opioid antagonist in experienced meditators. Psychosomatic Medicine. [pdf] [osf]

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Cullen Wins NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

SAN Lab Graduate Student Brendan Cullen received a 2018 Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) from the National Science Foundation. The prestigious GRF award will fully support Brendan’s doctoral studies for 3 of the next 5 years. Congratulations, Brendan!

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Tips for Coaches and Consultants to Help Clients with Goals and Behavior Change

Our new piece in Consulting Psychology Journal approaches goals and behavior change from a coaching perspective. How can coaches and consultants help their clients set better goals and effectively change their behavior?

Dr. Berkman wrote a plain language summary on the Motivated Brain here.

Citation info:

Berkman, E.T. (2018). The neuroscience of goals and behavior change: Lessons learned for consulting psychology. Consulting Psychology Journal, 70, 28-44. [pdf]

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New Article on Teen Risk Taking

Several folks from our group led by doctoral candidate Jessica Flannery have a new piece on teen risk taking over at The Conversation, “Teens aren’t just risk machines – there’s a method to their madness”.

You know the conventional wisdom: Adolescents are impulsive by nature, like bombs ready to go off at the most minor trigger. Parents feel they must cross their fingers and hope no one lights the fuse that will lead to an explosion. Adults often try restricting and monitoring teens’ behavior, in an effort to protect these seemingly unthinking riskseekers. That’s the tale told in the media, anyway.

Neuroscience evidence has seemed to bolster the case that adolescents are just wired to make bad decisions. Studies suggest that brain regions associated with self-control and long-term planning, such as the prefrontal cortex, are still developing. At the same time, adolescence is a time of increased activity in a brain region associated with reward, the ventral striatum. The story goes that these out-of-control teens are both extra sensitive to rewards and unable to rein in impulses – and thus naturally risky. They just can’t control themselves because their brains are unevenly developed.

As psychologists who focus on adolescents and their developing brains, we believe that teens have gotten an unfair rap. There are important developmental reasons adolescents act the way they do. They’re driven to explore their environments and learn everything they can about their surroundings. A teenager’s job, developmentally speaking, is to try out new behaviors and roles. Doing that sometimes involves risk – but not necessarily risk for its own sake.

Read the full piece here.

UPDATE (March 21, 2018): You can listen to Jessica discuss the piece on the Matt Townsend show here.

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Bill Walton Visits SAN Lab

Former UCLA Bruin and Portland Blazer basketball star Bill Walton stopped by the lab for a quick scan of his brain for a segment on his ESPN show, Walton’s World. See below for some pics!

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Quack Chat on New Year’s Resolutions by Dr. Berkman

Come hear Professor Berkman talk about evidence-based tips to help keep your New Year’s resolutions. He’ll present a #QuackChat at the Ax Billy Grill in the Downtown Athletic Club on Wednesday, December 13th, at 6pm.

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