Meditation changes the brain19th June 2012
New research from China and the United States shows that practising meditation for just a few hours can prompt beneficial changes in a person's brain.
Using imaging technology, researchers have found that short-term meditation can improve self-control, mood, stress response and immunity response.
Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers report that a form of meditation called "mindfulness meditation" can induce positive changes in the white matter of the brain.
The technique involves focus, rather than relaxation, and has also been referred to as "integrative body-mind training."
According to Michael Posner, a co-author of the study and a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon, the researchers randomly assigned 68 undergraduates at Dalian University of Technology, in northeastern China, to either a meditation or a relaxation-training group.
None of the study participants had received any previous meditation training.
Learning also induces changes in white matter, which acts as a relay system and coordinates different parts of the brain.
Focusing on areas of the brain that they felt were most likely to change, the researchers set out to measure the degree of alteration in the white matter of participants, using a noninvasive, MRI-based technology known as diffusion tensor imaging.
Other technology was also used to measure the white matter's ability to change and adapt as a result of experience; known as structural plasticity.
The meditation training was delivered in 30-minute sessions, either as integrative body-mind training or relaxation training, over a period of two weeks, with each group receiving a total of five hours' training.
Researchers measured key areas of the brain before and after the meditation training, and found evidence of measurable changes in white matter associated with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) occurred even after short exposure to focused meditation.
However, they did not observe similar changes in the group which received only relaxation-oriented meditation, which emphasizes sequential relaxation of different muscle groups.
The ACC, a part of the brain network related to self-regulation, is implicated in a wide range of problems, including addiction, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.
The authors noted that understanding the impact of learning, training and human development on white matter in the brain could lead to new ways to improve or prevent such problems.
Nicholas Schiff, associate professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, welcomed the findings.
He said study was valuable because it built on previous work that has confirmed that it is possible to demonstrate structural changes in the brain.
Schiff said the study was able to quantify its description of changes in the structure of the brain, and illustrate very dynamic processes at work.
He said the study was a substantial contribution towards scientists' ability to characterize how the adult brain modifies itself in response to the environment.
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