Nursing Research Matters

Training the Brain to Promote Self Care

Jean Tang thinks people ought to relax more often, and not just for the obvious reasons.  An assistant professor in the department of Psychosocial and Community Health (PCH) at the University of Washington School of Nursing (SoN), Dr. Tang’s research focuses on health promotion through brainwave regulation. For example, using light and sound interventions, she helps subjects attain an alpha state, which she describes as being both “relaxed and focused,” where the subject is “attentive to the external environment but not impacted by it.” Tang’s research suggests the alpha state may be useful in a variety of functions, from enhancing peak performance in college students, to lowering blood pressure in the older adults.

Dr. Tang was first exposed to the benefits of brainwave entrainment as a UW SoN graduate student in 1996 and in her work with the UW’s Management of Stress Response Clinic where she helped students manage their test taking anxiety through light-sound alpha waves entrainment. After earning her doctorate, she taught at Seattle University from 2005-2013 and always maintained her passion for research, in particular, using brainwave regulation to promote self-care among the older adults. In addition to her research, Dr. Tang is also an active clinician, providing patient care as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP). She sees research, practice and teaching as an inseparable circle, within which one informs another. Dr. Tang teaches the psychiatric and mental health specialty courses at the University of Washington School of Nursing.

In 2008, Dr. Tang’s study on music and binaural tones for alpha brainwave entrainment to reduce blood pressure in older adults was featured by American Heart Association, and received international media attention. In 2011, Tang was awarded a Claire Fagin Fellowship through the the John A. Hartford Foundation to research alternative approaches to manage insomnia among the older adults.  What emerged from her research was exciting evidence that physiological plasticity may be possible even at an advanced age. 

“As people age, our brains produce more beta waves, which cause anxious feeling, and theta waves, which cause drowsiness, and less alpha waves which is crucial for cognitive processing,” explains Tang. This leaves the older adults especially vulnerable to hyperarousal, or a state of increased psychological and physiological tension caused by a perceived threat; such threat can be as simple as change of daily routine due to a doctor’s appointment.  Tang’s research helped patients to manage their hyperarousal, which then helped to lower blood pressure and promote better sleep.

She says the Claire Fagin Hartford fellowship helped change her life by providing intensive mentoring and a professional focus for what began as a personal mission of promoting healthy aging. Tang credits her grandparents, whom she says gave her a nurturing childhood, with providing the motivation and moral foundation to work on behalf of older adults. She brings to the field a background in non-pharmacological approaches to chronic conditions and a commitment to holistic care.

“There are many scientists focused on promoting healthy aging and I’m happy to be part of that effort,” she says.  “As a clinician, and in my research, I know I’m not going to fix people’s problems. I want to be their partner to empower people on this journey of healing because it takes both sides to engage.” 

Dr. Tang was recently selected as the 2014 National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Aging (NIA) Butler-Williams Scholar.  She is currently studying the effectiveness of the slow brainwave light-sound stimulation for sleep promotion in people with chronic pain.  Dr. Tang was also awarded a UW School of Nursing Research and Intramural Funding Program:  Audio-visual Stimulation for Sleep Promotion in Older Adults with Osteoarthritis Pain.  The purpose of the study, co-sponsored by the Center for Research on the Management of Sleep Disorders, is to test the efficacy of an audio-visual stimulation program for sleep promotion in older adults with osteoarthritis pain.