Medical Research and the Practice of Mindfulness

Here is some of the most interesting scientific data in reference to Mindfulness and our physical and psychological health. All of the information I have listed was presented by nationally recognized medical groups and has recently appeared in major science publications.

 

Meditation Increases Brain Size

Research Finds Meditation Thickens the Grey Matter of the Brain

It is already known that meditation changes the way our brain works, enhancing neural coordination. A new study found that meditation not only changes the physical structure of the brain, it even increases the size of the brain. Sara Lazar, psychologist at Harvard Medical School, compared brain scans of a group of experienced meditators with those of ordinary people without meditation experience. During the scan, the former were meditating, the latter simply relaxing.

In this study, Lazar found that regular meditation increases the thickness of those brain areas connected with cognition and emotional processing and well-being. These sections of the cortex, or thinking cap, normally get thinner with age.

Lazars findings are consistent with other studies that showed how the corresponding areas of the brain grow thicker with repeated practice. Thus, a musician has a thicker ‘music area’, a dancer a thickened ‘motor skills area’ and so on. It wasn’t clear however, whether the completely internal activity of meditation would also have a similar effect.

The well known concept of ‘use it or lose it’ has long been used in the context of the fitness and capacities of the aging brain. Old people are generally encouraged to keep up their cognitive and intellectual skills by training their brain in many ways such as crosswords, learning a language etcetera. The good news is that meditation seems to do exactly the same thing, and that in a very pleasant and effective manner.

 

Meditation May Temporarily Boost Visuospatial Abilities

Meditation has been practiced for centuries, as a way to calm the mind and bring about inner peace.

According to a new study in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, there is now evidence that a specific method of meditation may temporarily boost our visuospatial abilities (for example, the ability to retain an image in visual memory for a long time). That is, the meditation allows practitioners to access a heightened state of visual-spatial awareness that lasts for a limited period of time.

Normally when we see something, it is kept in our visual short-term memory for only a brief amount of time (images will begin to fade in a matter of seconds). However, there have been reports of Buddhist monks who have exceptional imagery skills and are able to maintain complex images in their visual short-term memory for minutes, and sometimes even hours. Led by psychologist Maria Kozhevnikov of George Mason University, a team of researchers investigated the effects of different styles of Buddhist meditation on visuospatial skills.

The researchers focused on two styles of meditation: Deity Yoga (DY) and Open Presence (OP). During DY meditation, the practitioner focuses intently on an image of deity and his or her entourage. This requires coming up with an immensely detailed, three-dimensional image of the deity, and also focusing on the deity’s emotions and environment. In contrast, practitioners of OP meditation believe that pure awareness cannot be achieved by focusing on a specific image and therefore, they attempt to evenly distribute their attention while meditating, without dwelling on or analyzing any experiences, images, or thoughts that may arise.

In these experiments, experienced DY or OP meditation practitioners along with nonmeditators participated in two types of visuospatial tasks, testing mental rotation abilities (e.g., being able to mentally rotate a 3-D structure) and visual memory (e.g., being shown an image, retaining it in memory and then having to identify it among a number of other, related images). All of the participants completed the tasks, meditators meditated for 20 minutes, while others rested or performed non-meditative activities, and then completed a second round of the tasks.

The results revealed that all of the participants performed similarly on the initial set of tests, suggesting that meditation does not result in an overall, long-lasting improvement of visuospatial abilities. However, following the meditation period, practitioners of the DY style of meditation showed a dramatic improvement on both the mental rotation task and the visual memory task compared to OP practitioners and controls. These results indicate that DY meditation allows practitioners to access greater levels of visuospatial memory resources, compared to when they are not meditating. The authors state that this finding “has many implications for therapy, treatment of memory loss, and mental training.” Although, they conclude, future studies will need to examine if these results are specific to DY meditation, or if these effects can also occur using other visual meditation techniques.

 

Meditation Training Can Have a Positive Effect on Pain Management

Living with pain is stressful, but a surprisingly short investment of time in mental training can help you cope.

A new study examining the perception of pain and the effects of various mental training techniques has found that relatively short and simple mindfulness meditation training can have a significant positive effect on pain management.

Though pain research during the past decade has shown that extensive meditation training can have a positive effect in reducing a person’s awareness and sensitivity to pain, the effort, time commitment, and financial obligations required has made the treatment not practical for many patients. Now, a new study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte shows that a single hour of training spread out over a three day period can produce the same kind of analgesic effect.

The research appears in an article by UNC Charlotte psychologists Fadel Zeidan, Nakia S. Gordon, Junaid Merchant and Paula Goolkasian, in the current issue of The Journal of Pain.

“This study is the first study to demonstrate the efficacy of such a brief intervention on the perception of pain,” noted Fadel Zeidan, a doctoral candidate in psychology at UNC Charlotte and the paper’s lead author. “Not only did the meditation subjects feel less pain than the control group while meditating but they also experienced less pain sensitivity while not meditating.”

Over the course of three experiments employing harmless electrical shocks administered in gradual increments, the researchers measured the effect of brief sessions of mindfulness meditation training on pain awareness measuring responses that were carefully calibrated to insure reporting accuracy. Subjects who received the meditation training were compared to controls and to groups using relaxation and distraction techniques. The researchers measured changes in the subjects’ rating of pain at “low” and “high” levels during the different activities, and also changes in their general sensitivity to pain through the process of calibrating responses before the activities.

While the distraction activity – which used a rigorous math task to distract subjects from the effects of the stimulus – was effective in reducing the subject’s perception of “high” pain, the meditation activity had an even stronger reducing effect on high pain, and reduced the perception of “low” pain levels as well.

Further, the meditation training appeared to have an effect that continued to influence the patients after the activity was concluded, resulting in a general lowering of pain sensitivity in the subjects – a result that indicated that the effect of the meditation was substantially different from the effect of the distraction activity.

The finding follows earlier research studies that found differences in pain awareness and other mental activities among long-time practitioners of mindfulness meditation techniques.

“We knew already that meditation has significant effects on pain perception in long-term practitioners whose brains seem to have been completely changed — we didn’t know that you could do this in just three days, with just 20 minutes a day,” Zeidan said.

In assessing the first experiment, the researchers were not terribly surprised to discover that meditation activity appeared to be affecting the experimental subjects’ perception of pain because the researchers assumed that the change was mainly due to distraction, a well-known effect. However, subsequent findings began to indicate that the effect continued outside of the periods of meditation.

” When we re-calibrated their pain thresholds after the training had started and we found that they felt less pain, compared to the control subjects,” Zeidan noted. “This was totally surprising because a change in general sensitivity was not part of our hypothesis at all.

“We were so surprised after the first experiment that we did two more. We thought that no one was going to listen to us because no one had done this before- and we got a robust finding across the three experiments.”

Zeidan stresses that the effect the researchers measured in the meditation subjects was a lessening of pain but not a lessening of sensation. The calibration results showed little change in the meditation subjects’ sensitivity to the sensation of electricity, but a significant change in what level of shock was perceived to be painful.

“The short course of meditation was very effective on pain perception,” Zeidan said. “We got a very high effect size for the periods when they were meditating.

“In fact, it was kind of freaky for me. I was ramping at 400-500 milliamps and their arms would be jolting back and forth because the current was stimulating a motor nerve. Yet they would still be asking, ‘A 2?’ (’2′ being the level of electrical shock that designates low pain) It was really surprising,” he said.

Zeidan suspects that the mindfulness training lessens the awareness of and sensitivity to pain because it trains subjects’ brains to pay attention to sensations at the present moment rather than anticipating future pain or dwelling on the emotions caused by pain, and thus reduces anxiety.

“The mindfulness training taught them that distractions, feelings, emotions are momentary, don’t require a label or judgment because the moment is already over,” Zeidan noted. “With the meditation training they would acknowledge the pain, they realize what it is, but just let it go. They learn to bring their attention back to the present.”

Though the results are in line with past findings regarding mindfulness practitioners, Zeidan says that the findings are important because they show that meditation is much easier to use for pain management than it was previously believed to be because a very short, simple course of training is all that is required in order to achieve a significant effect. Even self-administered training might be effective, according to Zeidan.

“What’s neat here is that this is the briefest known way to promote a meditation state and yet it has an effect in pain management. People who want to make use of the technique might not need a meditation facilitator – they might be able to get the necessary training off the internet, ” Zeidan said. “All you have to do is use your mind, change the way you look at the perception of pain and that, ultimately, might help alleviate the feeling of that pain.”

Mindfulness Meditation Slows Progression of HIV, Study Shows

Reducing stress can bolster immune system in HIV-positive adults and others who have immune difficulties.

CD4+ T lymphocytes, or simply CD4 T cells, are the “brains” of the immune system, coordinating its activity when the body comes under attack. They are also the cells that are attacked by HIV, the devastating virus that causes AIDS and has infected roughly 40 million people worldwide. The virus slowly eats away at CD4 T cells, weakening the immune system.

But the immune systems of HIV/AIDS patients face another enemy as well — stress, which can accelerate CD4 T cell declines. Now, researchers at UCLA report that the practice of mindfulness meditation stopped the decline of CD4 T cells in HIV-positive patients suffering from stress, slowing the progression of the disease. The study was just released in the online edition of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of bringing an open and receptive awareness of the present moment to experiences, avoiding thinking of the past or worrying about the future. It is thought to reduce stress and improve health outcomes in a variety of patient populations.

“This study provides the first indication that mindfulness meditation stress-management training can have a direct impact on slowing HIV disease progression,” said lead study author David Creswell, a research scientist at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA. “The mindfulness program is a group-based and low-cost treatment, and if this initial finding is replicated in larger samples, it’s possible that such training can be used as a powerful complementary treatment for HIV disease, alongside medications.”

Creswell and his colleagues ran an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) meditation program and compared it to a one-day MBSR control seminar, using a stressed and ethnically diverse sample of 48 HIV-positive adults in Los Angeles. Participants in the eight-week group showed no loss of CD4 T cells, indicating that mindfulness meditation training can buffer declines. In contrast, the control group showed significant declines in CD4 T cells from pre-study to post-study. Such declines are a characteristic hallmark of HIV progression.

Creswell also noted that researchers found a “dose-response” relationship between MBSR class attendance and CD4 T cells, meaning, said Creswell, “the more mindfulness meditation classes people attended, the higher the CD4 T cells at the study’s conclusion.”

The researchers were also encouraged because the overall CD4 T cell effects remained even after controlling for a number of factors that could have skewed the study results. Most notably, they found equivalent protective effects for participants whether or not they were on antiretroviral medications for HIV. Even participants taking HIV medications showed the CD4 T cell buffering effect after the mindfulness meditation class, Creswell said.

There is emerging evidence from other studies that shows that behavioral stress-management programs can buffer HIV declines in HIV-positive people, Creswell noted. And while there has been an exponential increase of interest in and practice of mindfulness meditation in the West over the past 10 years, this study, he said, is the first to show an HIV disease protective effect with mindfulness meditation training.

In order to understand the health benefits of mindfulness meditation, Creswell and his colleagues at UCLA are now examining the underlying pathways through which mindfulness meditation reduces stress, using brain imaging, genetics and immune system measurements.

“Given the stress-reduction benefits of mindfulness meditation training, these findings indicate there can be health protective effects not just in people with HIV but in folks who suffer from daily stress,” Creswell said.

 
Sress and Lifelong Brain Health

 Managing stress effectively is essential for overall health of the body and brain. Jensen provides a simplified look at how stress affects the body. Cells are either in a threat -distress mode, in which they are protecting themselves from danger, or in a growth mode. Cells cannot be under the attack of distress (think of running from a dog or fighting with a spouse) and at the same time grow and reproduce. Neurons will not communicate properly with other cells in distress. Stress damages neuronal networks just as a cut damages skin.

Neuronal dendrites, the branch-like extensions that carry information into the cell body of the neuron, can be reduced by 18%-32% when exposed to toxic stress. Consistent stress leads to the death of neurons. Cortisol, a stress hormone, damages the cells of the hippocampus, crippling the ability to learn and remember. The bottom line is that while stress responses play an essential role in protecting us under intense conditions, chronic stress can speed up disease and cause damage to the brain. Acute stress may boost cardiovascular performance to enable someone to lift a car off a child, but under long-term stress, adrenaline stops regulating surges in blood pressure. Unregulated surges create rough spots and tears inside blood vessels. The spots turn into scars, and sticky substances build up there, clogging arteries. This is why people with chronic stress have an elevated risk of heart attack, stroke and dementia.

Mahoney and Restak remind us that one of the greatest protections against the harmful effects of stress is a strong social support system. These authors suggest that people with supportive friends and family members are less likely to rely on alcohol, tobacco or drugs. They also encourage lowering stress by letting go of things beyond our control, taking frequent movement breaks, volunteering for others, practicing focused breathing and eating a healthy diet.

Cardiovascular exercise is a key factor in effectively managing stress. It stimulates brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that helps brain cells multiply and function effectively. At least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise in the training heart rate zone can improve mood, elevate our stress threshold, speed delivery of oxygen to the brain, and help to balance brain chemicals and hormones for more effective stress management. Regular exercise also helps the body sleep better, which aids in dealing with little and big stressors. Falling asleep is easiest when the body and mind are relaxed and more difficult when the body is alert and tense.

 

One thought on “Medical Research and the Practice of Mindfulness

  1. I find this information very useful and user friendly. It helps regular mindfulness practitioners and meditators understand what is going on within themselves and how useful their practice is. Thanks so much.

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