REWIRING THE BRAIN: Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in 8 weeks

Mass. General-led study shows changes over time in areas associated with awareness, empathy, stress

Brain image - meditation and the brain

Participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. In a study that appeared in the January 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, a team led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers report the results of their study, the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s grey matter.

“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,” says Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH 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.”

Previous studies from Lazar’s group and others found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.

For the current study, MR images were take of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. In addition to weekly meetings that included practice of mindfulness meditation—which focuses on non-judgmental 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 set of MR brain images were also taken of a control group of non-meditators over a similar time interval.

Meditation group participants 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 analysis of MR images, 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. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. 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 in that area. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.

“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.” says Britta Hölzel, PhD, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany. “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.”

Amishi Jha, PhD, a University of Miami neuroscientist who investigates mindfulness-training’s effects on individuals in high-stress situations, says, “These results shed light on the mechanisms of action of mindfulness-based training. They demonstrate that the first-person experience of stress can not only be reduced with an 8-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.” Jha was not one of the study investigators.

Learn more about the effects of meditation and the brain in this interview with neuroscientist and author of Buddha’s Brain, Dr. Rick Hanson

 

James Carmody, PhD, of the Center for Mindfulness at University of Massachusetts Medical School, is one of co-authors of the study, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the British Broadcasting Company, and the Mind and Life Institute. More information on the work of Lazar’s team is available athttp://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/~lazar/.

Source: EurekAlert!

image: kombizz kashani (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)

Posted by × August 22, 2013 at 11:34 AM

7 Comments

  1. julien horvath says:

    in 2011 i had a sports accident that left me with severe head trauma, physical trauma and nerve damages in neck.. i could not realize what happened to me and could not really participate in life for a year.. it was exhausting to listen and focus and deal with stimuli.. but from shortly after accident, i continued daily mindful meditation (i had started 2 months before accident).. since then i lost high potential job and ability to deal with stress and pressure at rat race level.. what keeps me centered, grounded, and positive is meditation.. if i start feeling dizzy, i close my eyes and focus on breath and mindful meditation process, 5mn being enough to bring me back to moving clearly.. compared to other traumatic brain injury survivors, i am much less stressed about future or angry about past.. mindful meditation saved my brain from itself following heavy trauma.. hope this helps someone out there 🙂

  2. Superb insight.

    “The analysis of MR images…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.“

    What a tremendous difference meditating for just 27 minutes per day can make.

  3. The paper referenced in this article was published almost 3 years ago. Are there no more recent studies?

    My university would laugh at this…

  4. Nalliah Thayabharan says:

    Until we reach age of 4 during the normal state of eyes open, awake and alert our brains were functioning in the delta state, with brain waves function at less than 4 Hz. But still when we have deep sleep our brains function in the delta state..

    From age of 4 to 7, during the normal state of eyes open, awake and alert our brains were primarily operating in theta state, with brain waves functioning mainly between between 4 to 7 Hz. Now we experience this level of brain wave activity during sleep and during states of fear when the body goes into a fight,-flight or freeze response, (hyper arousal, or the acute stress response). This is a powerful level from which to initiate change and in this state, we only need mostly just one or couple of experiences of learning to change our behaviour.

    From the age 7 until we reached our puberty, during the normal state of eyes open, awake and alert our brains were mainly operating in the alpha state of 7 to 14 Hz. Now during light sleep, meditation, or eyes closed relaxation we reach alpha state. At this level effective learning can take place after about 21 repetitions. Practice a new behaviour for about 21 times and that behaviour becomes a habit. Strong levels of physical healing can take place when the brain is at 10 Hz

    Since puberty during the normal state of eyes open, awake and alert our brain operates in the beta state, 14 to 21 Hz during the normal state of eyes open, awake and alert. In this state it may take many thousands of repetitions to learn a new behaviour. To create significant change in our lives at this level takes extensive deal of time and effort.

    Brain waves less than 7 Hz are very ideal for rejuvenating and to maintain good health.

    0.5 Hz – Relaxation, Soothe headaches
    0.5 – 1.5 Hz – Pain relief. Endorphin release
    0.9 Hz – Euphoric feeling
    1 Hz – Well being. Harmony and balance
    1 – 3 Hz – Profound relaxation, restorative sleep. Tranquility and peace
    2.5 Hz – Production of endogenous opiates (pain killers, reduce anxiety)
    2.5 Hz – Relieves migraine pain. Produces endogenous opiates
    3 – 8 Hz – Deep relaxation, meditation. Lucid dreaming
    3 – 8 Hz – Increased memory, focus, creativity
    3.4 Hz – Helps achieve restful sleep
    3.5 Hz – Feeling of unity with everything. Whole being regeneration
    3.9 Hz – Self renewal, enhanced inner awareness
    4 Hz – Enkephalin release for reduced stress
    4 Hz – Allows brain to produce enkaphalins, all natural pain killer
    4 Hz – Full memory scanning. Releases enkephalins
    4.Hz – Vital for memory and learning. Problem solving, object naming
    4 – 7 Hz – Profound inner peace, emotional healing. Lowers mental fatigue
    4 – 7 Hz – Deep meditation, near-sleep brainwaves.
    4.5 Hz – Brings about Buddha’s state of consciousness, Buddhist chants.
    4.9 Hz – Induce relaxation and deeper sleep
    4.9 Hz – Introspection. Relaxation, meditation
    5 Hz – Reduces sleep required. Replaces need for extensive dreaming
    5.3 Hz – Allows relaxing breathing, free and efficient
    5.5 Hz – Inner guidance, intuition
    6.5 Hz – Activates creative frontal lobe
    7.5 Hz – Activates creative thought for art, invention, music. Problem solving
    7.5 Hz – Ease of overcoming troublesome issues
    7.8 Hz – Schumann earth resonance. Grounding, meditative, Leaves us revitalized
    8 Hz – Associated with the mouth. Brings creativity
    8- 10 Hz Super-learning new information, memorization, not comprehension.
    10 Hz – Enhanced serotonin release. Mood elevation, arousal, stimulant
    10 Hz – Provides relief from lost sleep, improves general mood
    10 Hz – Mood elevator. Used to dramatically reduce headaches
    10 Hz – Clarity, subconscious correlation. Releases serotonin
    11 Hz – Relaxed yet awake state
    11 – 14 Hz – Increased focus and awareness
    12 Hz – Centering, mental stability.
    12 – 15 Hz – Relaxed focus, improved attentive abilities
    12 – 14 Hz – Learning frequency, good for absorbing information passively
    13 – 27 Hz – Promotes focused attention toward external stimuli
    13 – 30 Hz – Problem solving, conscious thinking
    14 Hz – Awakeness, alert. Concentration on tasks, Focusing, vitality.
    16 Hz – Bottom of hearing range. Releases oxygen/calcium into cells
    18 – 24 Hz — Euphoria, can result in headaches, anxiety.

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