Mindfulness and structural changes in the brain

Our 10 week community course held at City West Lotteries House has just completed. (The photo shows some of us celebrating after the last class.) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEach week I gave the participants small tasters of some of the neuroscience and other research that is being done into Mindfulness and other forms of meditation. Here is a short summary of one of the interesting areas that scientists are investigating in terms of the effects of meditation practice…

It is unfortunately true that for the average person we lose the brain’s grey matter as we age. Although the brain does regenerate and produce new brain cells, as we age, fewer new cells are produced than die. The neuroscientists can measure the volume and density of grey matter in the brain and track this change.

In two separate pieces of research the scientists measured the thickness of brain’s cortex and the density of different areas of the brain to see if meditation could be seen to change the brain’s structure.

The first study, run by a team in Massachusetts, USA, looked at the brains of 20 people with extensive meditation period: long-term daily meditators. It was the first study that has provided structural evidence that meditation is associated with changes in the brain (neuroplasticity).

They found that the brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in the meditators than the control group (matched for sex, age etc), including the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula. In their words: “Our initial results suggest that meditation may be associated with structural changes in areas of the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive and emotional processing.”

The biggest differences between the meditators and the non-meditators were found in the older participants. The researchers concluded that meditation might offset age-related cortical thinning. In one particular region of the prefrontal cortex, the 40-50 year-old meditators had the average thickness of 20-30 year-olds. Good news for those of us who are no longer in the full flush of youth.

The second study also carried out in Massachusetts, USA, is of more relevance to people who are relatively new to meditation and Mindfulness. This research looked at people taking the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course – quite an intense 8 week course which requires people to adopt a daily Mindfulness practice (including body scan, mindful yoga, sitting meditation).

In this research it was thought (based in part on the first study) that there would be increases in grey matter concentration within the left hippocampus (known to be critically involved in learning and memory processes and in the regulation of emotion) and the insula (associated with interoceptive/visceral awareness, empathic responses, human awareness, consciousness). The study confirmed that after the 8-week MBSR course there were significant increases in grey matter in the hippocampus but not the insula of the participants.

In addition to the hippocampus, the researchers also reviewed the whole brain and identified increases in other areas, including the following:

  • posterior cingulate cortex (an area particularly important for the “integration of self-referential stimuli in the emotional and autobiographical context of one’s own person”.)
  • temporo-parietal junction, (an area thought to be a crucial structure for the conscious experience of the self and also involved in social cognition, or the ability to interpret other people’s desires, intentions, and goals.)
  • cerebellum (part of the brain that is important in the integration of sensory perception, coordination, and motor control, and plays a crucial role in the regulation of emotion and cognition.)

The conclusion of the research was “that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.” These are all important functions for humans to be able to successfully navigate life.

There are many important aspects of the research that are not describe here and the scientists are very cautious about what the results can be said to establish. Without a doubt though, what is clear is that the adult brain is capable or changing in response to training. The exact mechanisms might not yet be fully understood but the benefits can still be enjoyed through daily practice of Mindfulness meditation.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.