Feb 7, 2011
Meditation is just a way to relax and maybe calm you down for the moment, right? Wrong. Not only will most regular meditators tell you that meditation makes them feel better emotionally and physically, but now there is also scientific evidence that regular meditation literally changes the body — specifically, it changes the brain in ways that appear to be beneficial.
In a study published in the January 30 edition of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers concluded that an eight week mindful meditation practice produced measurable changes in participants’ brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. This is the first study to document meditation-produced changes in the brain’s grey matter over time.
“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,” Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, the study’s senior author, said in a media statement. “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.”
Previous research has documented structural differences between the brains of experienced mediation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation. These brain changes included thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with the integration of emotions and attention. However, earlier studies were unable to document that those brain differences were actually caused by meditation.
So for the new study, MR images were taken of the brain structures of 16 study participants two weeks before and two after they participated in the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. Besides attending weekly practice sessions featuring mindfulness meditation (which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings and state of mind) the research subjects also used audio recordings for guided meditation practice and were asked to keep track of how much time they meditated daily, too. MR brain scans were also taken of a group of non-meditators over a similar time interval to serve as a control.
The meditators reported spending about 27 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises. The MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated changes were noted in earlier studies, showed increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus (an area of the brain known to be important for learning and memory) and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.
Participants’ answers to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements in the meditators’ stress levels compared with pre-participation responses — and reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, part of the brain which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. None of these changes 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 in the press statement. “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.”
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This article was posted: Monday, February 7, 2011 at 5:19 am