Thursday, 17 January 2013

Brain Science and Meditation: How to Improve the Brain

Stress is no joke. Aside from the sleepless nights and lots of tension, stress can also have a range of negative health effects.

So how do you reduce stress?

A team of researchers at the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine started looking for answers.

They gathered 18 patients who had received diagnoses of breast cancer but were not in active treatment. Arguing that this was a population of people who were under high stress, researchers randomly assigned the patients to two different groups. One group received a mindfulness-based art therapy course, while the other received an education program to serve as a control.

The 8-week mindfulness course combined meditation exercises that stressed awareness of breathing and emotions with expressive art exercises to provide opportunities for self-expression.

Researchers measured participants’ response both before and after the program with a symptom checklist.

But they also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess cerebral bloodflow before and after the study as well.

(Cerebral bloodflow corresponds to changes in brain activity, so the fMRI scans were an effective way of measuring how the subjects’ brains changed as a result of the intervention.)

So, what were those changes?

Participants who got the mindfulness course showed significantly increased bloodflow to areas of the brain associated with controlling emotions and regulating stress.

What’s more, these increases in cerebral blood flow correlated significantly with reduced stress and anxiety as indicated by the symptom checklist. So, the brains of study participants who got the mindfulness course were actually working differently – and they reported that they felt better as well.

According to the authors, finding ways to change the brain could help improve quality of life for cancer patients.

But anyone can benefit from brain change. Who wouldn’t want to lower their stress and anxiety levels?

I should note, though, that this study has some limitations. First, because the mindfulness course combined meditation with art therapy, we can’t be sure which intervention actually led to change, or if it was the combination of the two.

Second, this study had a rather small sample size, which limits its statistical power.

Despite these limitations, this research suggests one way we can change the brain. I’d like to see research that uses larger samples and isolates its variables more effectively, but this is a good foundation.

To read more, you can find the full study in Volume 28, Issue 5 of Stress and Health.

If you’re interested in other ways to create effective, lasting brain change, take a look at our webinar series on the New Brain Science.
Next week, I’ll be speaking with Rick Hanson, PhD. He’ll show us how we can help our patients turn positive experience into lasting brain change.
The broadcast is free, you just have to sign up.
What techniques have you used to reduce stress in the long term? Do you think changing the brain might help your practice? Add your thoughts to the comments below.

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