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Meditation Changes the Cells of the Brain
If you’ve been skeptical about trying meditation or have doubted its effectiveness, you may want to give it a try after reviewing the findings of a new study. The brains of people who took a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course showed significant – and beneficial – changes at the level of the cells themselves.
Mindfulness training has gained popularity in recent years as a way to treat depression, anxiety, addiction, and other disorders, as well as a way for otherwise healthy people to simply de-stress and re-center. The practice focuses on teaching people to become aware of their thoughts and body sensations in a gentle, nonjudgmental way. Research has shown meditation's positive effects on a range of conditions, from anxietyto chronic pain to ADHD. The researchers behind the current study wondered how taking an MBSR course might affect the size of various structures in the brain.
In the study, the team used MRI to scan the brains of 16 healthy people two weeks before they enrolled in an MBSR course at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Their brains were also scanned two weeks after completing the 8-week course to compare how certain structures may have changed during training. During the MBSR training, participants took weekly classes, were given audio recordings for guided meditation, and logged how much time they spent meditating on their own each day (the average was about 27 minutes).
The brain scans showed some impressive differences before and after the MBSR training. One area that showed an increase in gray matter (or brain cell mass) was the hippocampus, which is important in learning and memory. Other places in which gray matter mass increased were structures linked to self-awareness, introspection, and compassion. Some regions showed decreases in gray matter — like the amygdala, which governs stress and anxiety. The participants also rated themselves as less stressed after taking part in the program, which corresponds to what was observed in their brains.
The study demonstrates that the brain is undergoing some very real shifts, which are responsible for what people report feeling psychologically and physically. Study author Sara Lazar says in a press release, "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."
Author Britta Hölzel adds that "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... we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change."
Researchers have recently made a lot of progress using Western science to understand Eastern medicine. It will be interesting to see what else they uncover as more research unfolds.
The study was carried out by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, and published in the January 30, 2011 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.
February 11, 2011
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