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Meditation really can change the brain, study finds

Jan. 23, 2011
Courtesy of Massachusetts General Hospital
and World Science staff

An eight-week pro­gram of medita­t­ion led to brain struc­ture changes in peo­ple par­ti­ci­pat­ing in a stu­dy, re­search­ers say. It’s the first time that medita­t­ion, a prac­tice ad­vo­cat­ed by a range of re­li­gious tra­di­tions, has been shown to lead to such changes, ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists.

Pre­vi­ous re­search, they said, had re­vealed struc­tur­al dif­fer­ences in the brains of med­i­ta­tors, but could­n’t doc­u­ment that medita­t­ion had ac­tu­ally caused those changes. The re­search­ers re­ported that par­ti­ci­pat­ing in an eight-week medita­t­ion pro­gram ap­peared to make meas­ur­a­ble changes in brain re­gions as­so­ci­at­ed with mem­o­ry, sense of self, em­pa­thy and stress.

“Al­though the prac­tice of medita­t­ion is as­so­ci­at­ed with a sense of peace­ful­ness and phys­i­cal re­laxa­t­ion, prac­ti­tion­ers have long claimed that medita­t­ion al­so pro­vides cog­ni­tive and psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits that per­sist through­out the day,” said Sara Laz­ar of the Mas­sa­chu­setts Gen­er­al Hos­pi­tal’s Psy­chi­at­ric Neu­roimag­ing Re­search Pro­gram, the stu­dy’s sen­ior au­thor. “This study demon­strates that changes in brain struc­ture may un­der­lie some of these re­ported im­prove­ments and that peo­ple are not just feel­ing bet­ter be­cause they are spend­ing time re­laxing.”

The study is to ap­pear in the Jan. 30 is­sue of the jour­nal Psy­chi­a­try Re­search: Neu­ro­imag­ing.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors scanned the brain struc­tures of 16 study par­ti­ci­pants two weeks be­fore and af­ter they took part in the eight-week Mind­ful­ness-Based Stress Re­duc­tion Pro­gram at the Uni­vers­ity of Mas­sa­chu­setts Cen­ter for Mind­ful­ness. In ad­di­tion to weekly meet­ings that in­clud­ed prac­tice of mind­ful­ness medita­t­ion – which fo­cus­es on non­judg­men­tal aware­ness of sensa­t­ions, feel­ings and state of mind – par­ti­ci­pants re­ceived au­di­o record­ings for guid­ed medita­t­ion prac­tice and were asked to keep track of how much time they prac­ticed each day. A group of non-med­i­ta­tors al­so had their brains scanned dur­ing the same time pe­ri­od.

The med­i­ta­tors re­ported spend­ing an av­er­age of 27 min­utes each day prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness ex­er­cises, and their re­sponses to a “mind­ful­ness ques­tion­naire” in­di­cat­ed sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ments com­pared with pre-par­ticipa­t­ion re­sponses, the sci­en­tists re­ported. 

Anal­y­sis of the brain scans, which fo­cused on ar­eas where medita­t­ion-as­so­ci­at­ed dif­fer­ences were seen in ear­li­er stud­ies, found in­creased grey-mat­ter dens­ity in the hip­po­cam­pus, known to be im­por­tant for learn­ing and mem­o­ry, and in struc­tures as­so­ci­at­ed with self-a­ware­ness, com­pas­sion and in­tro­spec­tion. Grey mat­ter is the brain tis­sue that con­tains nerve cells.

The re­duc­tions in stress re­ported by the par­ti­ci­pants were al­so cor­re­lat­ed with de­creased grey-mat­ter dens­ity in the amyg­da­la, a struc­ture known to play an im­por­tant role in anx­i­e­ty and stress, re­search­ers said. None of these changes were seen in the non-med­i­ta­tors.

“It is fas­ci­nat­ing to see the brain’s plas­ticity and that, by prac­tic­ing medita­t­ion, we can play an ac­tive role in chang­ing the brain and can in­crease our well-be­ing and qual­ity of life,” said re­search team mem­ber Britta Hölzel of Mas­sa­chu­setts Gen­er­al. “Other stud­ies in dif­fer­ent pa­tient popula­t­ions have shown that medita­t­ion can make sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ments in a va­ri­e­ty of symp­toms, and we are now in­ves­ti­gat­ing the un­der­ly­ing mech­a­nisms in the brain that fa­cil­i­tate this change.”

The find­ing al­so “opens doors to many pos­si­bil­i­ties for fur­ther re­search… to pro­tect against stress-related dis­or­ders, such as post-traumatic stress dis­or­der,” said Uni­vers­ity of Mi­ami neu­ro­sci­ent­ist Amishi Jha, who was­n’t in­volved in the study but re­searches mind­ful­ness train­ing’s ef­fects on stressed peo­ple.


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An eight-week program of meditation led to brain structure changes in people participating in a study, researchers say. It’s the first time that meditation, a practice advocated by a range of religious traditions, has been shown to lead to such changes, according to the scientists. Previous research, they said, had revealed structural differences in the brains of meditators, but couldn’t document that meditation had actually caused the changes. The researchers reported that participating in an 8-week meditation program appeared to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” said Sara Lazar of the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, the study’s senior author. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.” The study is to appear in the Jan. 30 issue of the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. The investigators scanned the brain structures of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. In addition to weekly meetings that included practice of mindfulness meditation – which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings and state of mind – participants received audio recordings for guided meditation practice and were asked to keep track of how much time they practiced each day. A group of non-meditators also had their brains scanned during the same time period. The meditators reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a “mindfulness questionnaire” indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses, the scientists reported. Analysis of the brain scans, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Grey matter is the brain tissue that contains nerve cells. The reductions in stress reported by the participants were also correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, a structure known to play an important role in anxiety and stress, researchers said. Although no change was seen in a self-awareness-associated structure called the insula, which had been identified in earlier studies, the authors suggest that longer-term meditation practice might be needed to produce changes there. None of these changes were seen in the non-meditators. “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” said research team member Britta Hölzel of Massachusetts General. “Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.” The finding also “opens doors to many possibilities for further research… to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder,” said University of Miami neuroscientist Amishi Jha, who wasn’t involved in the study but researches mindfulness training’s effects on stressed people.