Is it possible to sort of “rewire” your brain so you can better control imposing symptoms of depression and angst? The short answer, according to recent new research, is yes, and it all it takes in large part is some “mindfulness meditation.”
According to a study which appeared more than a year-and-a-half ago, in the January 2011 journal of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, a team led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers reported that an eight-week program called mindfulness meditation was able to make measurable changes in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.
The study is the first to document meditation-created changes to the brain.
“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 the study’s senior author, Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program.
“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,” she said.
Documented physical changes in the brain
In previous studies, Lazar’s group and others discovered structural differences between brains of experienced practitioners of meditation and those who had no history of it. In particular, researchers observed a thickening of the cerebral cortex in regions associated with attention and emotional integration, says a summary of the study at Science Daily. Those earlier studies, however, were unable to discover a link between the physical cortex changes and meditation.
That all changed with Lazar’s latest study. In it, she and her team took MRIs of the brain structure of 16 participants in the study two weeks before and two weeks after they took part in the eight-week program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.
Besides weekly meetings which included practicing mindful medication – a practice that focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of feelings, sensations and state of mind – participants also were exposed to audio recordings of guided meditation practice and were asked to keep track of how much time they spent meditating each day. For comparison, MRIs were taken of a control group of non-meditators over a similar period of time.
Those who meditated did so for an average of 27 minutes each day, according to the research team, practicing mindfulness exercises. Their subsequent responses to a mindfulness questionnaire as the study progressed indicated strong improvements compared to pre-study responses.
An analysis of MRIs that focused on regions where meditation-associated differences were found in earlier studies showed increased brain densities in the hippocampus, which is known to be important for learning and memory, as well as structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.
None of the changes, however, were seen in the control group.
“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,” Britta Holzel, PhD, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany, said.
“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,” she added.
Mindful meditation’s increased brain benefits becoming better known
Other researchers were equally enthusiastic.
“These results shed light on the mechanisms of action of mindfulness-based training,” said Amishi Jha, PhD, a University of Miami neuroscientist who investigates mindfulness-training’s effects on individuals in high-stress situations, who was not involved in the study.”
They demonstrate that the first-person experience of stress can not only be reduced with an eight-week mindfulness training program but that this experiential change corresponds with structural changes in the amygdala, a finding that opens doors to many possibilities for further research on MBSR’s potential to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.
This research appears to be similar to a separate body of work that has shown that with as few as 11 hours of mindful meditation, the white matter of the brain that aspartame destroys, can begin to grow back.