Mindfulness Meditation Changes Your Brain
A new study led by Britta Hölzel, PhD, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, provides evidence that mindfulness meditation isn’t just good for you – it actually changes your brain!
The published article (Mindfulness Practice leads to increases in regional gray matter) appeared in the 1/30/2011 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.
This is a review of the study for my biopsychology class.
Determining Brain Changes After a Mindfulness Meditation Course
The goal of this research study was to identify parts of the brain that changed based upon participation in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course by objectively correlating them with measurable neurological changes.
To prepare for the study, the researchers reviewed many different pieces of background literature that indicated mindfulness meditation provides psychological benefits, like those by Ruth Bauer in 2003, and Paul Grossman in 2004.
Some of the therapeutic benefits they investigated included previous research on mindfulness meditation in relation to anxiety (Roemer et al., 2008), depression (Teasdale et al., 2000), substance abuse (Bowen et al., 2006), eating disorders (Tapper et al., 2009) and chronic pain (Grossman et al., 2007), as well as:
- Studies around awareness and perceptual shifts, like those by Kabatt-Zinn in 1990, and Carmody in 2009;
- Studies that used neuroimaging techniques to study mindfulness, including EEG (Davidson, et al., 2003; Slagter et al, 2009) and MRI (Farb et al., 2007; Lutz et al, 2008; and Goldin and Gross 2010; and many others);
- Studies related to plasticity and changes in the brain during mindfulness meditation (Draganski et al 2006; Mechelli et al, 2004; Milad et al, 2005; and others).
In the study, researchers do not explicitly state how they hoped to improve upon previous research. However, my assumption based on the introduction is that they hoped to verify and improve upon research related to which parts of the brain undergo changes during mindfulness meditation, as well provide scientific proof that the 8-week program is a worthwhile investment.
The hypothesis was that they would find changes in the brain’s gray matter, specifically the insula and hippocampus, as well as other “whole brain” changes, that relate to learning and memory, emotional regulation, self-referential processing and perspective taking.
Methods Used in the Mindfulness Meditation Study
The study was rather small, and only consisted of 16 participants (6 males and 10 female) who were seeking to reduce stress and enrolled in the MBSR course held at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. They were carefully screened to ensure they were both physically and psychologically healthy, not taking any medications, and had not participated in any recent meditation classes.
The average demographics were:
- Age: 38;
- Ethnicity: 13 Caucasian; 1 Asian; 1 African American; 1 multi-ethnic;
- Education: 18 years.
Based upon this information, the sample size definitely does not accurately represent the general population. It is limiting by all characteristics, and skewed heavily toward college-educated, Caucasian females in their 30s. Interestingly, all participants were also right-handed.
The authors of the study used voxel-based morphometry (VBM) to study changes in the brain’s gray matter. Wikipedia explains VBM as, “A neuroimaging analysis technique that allows investigation of focal differences in brain anatomy by registering every brain to a template, which gets rid of most of the large differences in brain anatomy among people. Then the brain images are smoothed so that each voxel represents the average of itself and its neighbors.”
In addition, each participant was given an MRI at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging in Charlestown, MA. Finally, each participant completed the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) pre and post intervention. Measurements for each participant were taken before and after the 8-week mindfulness meditation course.
Results After the Mindfulness Meditation Course
The results of the mindfulness study are as follows:
- Amount of mindfulness practice – No significant correlations were found in brain changes as they related to body scan and yoga, body scan and sitting meditation, and yoga and sitting meditation.
- Improvements in mindfulness – MBSR program participants showed significant increases in three of five mindfulness subscales: acting with awareness, observing and non-judging.
- Gray matter changes in a priori region – A small cluster in the left hippocampus showed increased gray matter.
- Whole brain analysis – Four clusters in the brain showed an increase in gray matter, including the cingulate cortex, one in the left temporoparietal lobe, and two in the cerebellum, one of which was centered in the vermis and extended into the brain stem.
With this in mind, the hypothesis of the researchers was correct because the study was able to correlate specific changes in both the hippocampus and other areas of the brain’s gray matter, specifically the PCC, TPJ and cerebellum, to the participation in the MBSR program.
The areas identified in this study are known to regulate control of emotion (hippocampus and one area of the cerebellum), conscious experience (TPJ region), introspection/processing self-referential stimuli (PCC region), and the site of synthesis and release of the neurotransmitter norephinephrine, which plays a significant role in how our bodies respond to stress, as well as the release of serotonin (the area by the brain stem). This last area is also the place where antidepressant medications are synthesized, and is associated with a variety of clinical dysfunctions related to depression, anxiety, sleep and more.
Discussion of the Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
The overall conclusion of the study is that thanks to the plasticity of the adult nervous system, people suffering from stress can benefit both physically and psychologically by participating in a MBSR program, like the intervention used during this research study.
The implication is that rather than relying on prescription (or non-prescription) drugs for relief from stress, Americans can achieve greater health benefits from holistic, alternative forms of medicine.
Due to some of the limitations of the study, however, additional research needs to be conducted to determine the extent of these benefits. For example, one areas that needs explored is the age range in which these benefits can be achieved, as well as if they are achieved in both “right-brain” and “left-brain” people. Furthermore, additional investigation around the different types of meditation would be needed to clarify which is most beneficial to treat specific concerns and health issues.
Personal Thoughts on Mindfulness Meditation
In conclusion, I feel that this is a great study because it helps reinforce to the general population, as well as physicians and insurance companies, that these types of natural solutions offer REAL health benefits – ones that may be better than our traditional Western methods. The current state of our healthcare system is a testament to the fact that drugs are not a good solution. We are taking more medications than ever before, with the result being an increase in sickness and disease.
Perhaps with more studies like this one to support the medical benefits associated with mindfulness meditation and other natural solution, physicians will be more inclined to write prescriptions for these types of therapies, rather than prescribing Prozac and other antidepressants, and insurance companies will include them as part of coverage .
The only difference I would like to have seen is a sample more representative of the general population.
Moving forward, I think additional research is needed in several specific areas:
- A study to determine if the same results are achieved by those who are NOT stressed, thereby indicating that mindfulness meditation can be used proactively, not just reactively.
- A longitudinal study to determine the long-term benefits of mindfulness meditation. For example, are the structural changes in the brain permanent after participating in a mindfulness meditation course, or are they temporary? If they are temporary, how long do they last? This type of information would allow us to determine more specific criteria – like a “prescription” – in terms of how often people should participate in a program, and if they need to make it a life-long routine versus something they can do temporarily to alleviate a specific condition.
- In addition, studies that indicate whether or not children can benefit from participating at an early age, as well as those designed around other demographic criteria, would be beneficial to aid in the clinical setting.
- Finally, I would like to understand the differences associated with participating in mindfulness meditation in a group setting versus individual practice.
Credit for The Mindfulness Researchers…
Britta K. Hölzela, James Carmodyc, Mark Vangela, Christina Congletona, Sita M. Yerramsettia, Tim Garda,b, Sara W. Lazar