Ground-Breaking Study Demonstrates Mindfulness Benefits
For the first time in a scientifically rigorous study, it has been shown that Mindfulness Meditation – as opposed to a more generic type of relaxation training – can change the brain biochemistry of ordinary people over the medium-term and potentially improve their health.
The researchers, from Carnegie Mellon University, recruited 35 unemployed men and women who were unemployed and experiencing considerable stress. Blood was drawn and brain scans were given. Half the subjects were then taught formal mindfulness meditation at a residential retreat center; the other participants completed a similarly comprehensive training program but one devoid of mindfulness-oriented exercises.
‘‘We had everyone do stretching exercises, for instance,’’ lead researcher David Creswell said. The mindfulness group paid close attention to bodily sensations, including unpleasant ones. The non-mindfulness-oriented relaxation group was encouraged to chatter and generally not pay attention to their bodies,
At the end of three days, all the participants told the researchers they felt refreshed and better able to withstand the stress of unemployment. Yet follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity in the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm.
Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though very few in the mindfulness group had continued to do practice exercises on their own.
The participants in the the mindfulness meditation group showed reduced levels of a key inflammation biomarker called Interleukin-6 (IL-6) four months later.
It is important to maintain low levels of IL-6 because, in high doses, it has been linked to inflammation-related diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and autoimmune conditions. Not only did the participants in the mindfulness group have lower levels of IL-6, they also showed increased connectivity in their brains.
Dr. Creswell and his colleagues believe that the changes in the brain contributed to the subsequent reduction in inflammation, although precisely how remains unknown. Also unclear is whether you need to spend three uninterrupted days of contemplation to reap the benefits. When it comes to how much mindfulness is needed to improve health, Dr. Creswell said, ‘‘we still have no idea about the ideal dose.”
All of the participants completed a five-minute resting state brain scan before and after the three-day program, and also provided blood samples right before the retreats and again at a four-month follow-up.
“We think that these brain changes provide a neurobiological marker for improved executive control and stress resilience, such that mindfulness meditation training improves your brain’s ability to help you manage stress, and these changes improve a broad range of stress-related health outcomes, such as your inflammatory health,” Dr. Creswell said.
When an individual experiences stress, activity in the prefrontal cortex — responsible for conscious thinking and planning — decreases, while activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex — regions that quickly activate the body’s stress response — increases. Studies have suggested that mindfulness reverses these patterns during stress; it increases prefrontal activity, which can regulate and turn down the biological stress response.
Excessive activation of the biological stress response increases the risk of diseases impacted by stress (like depression, HIV and heart disease). By reducing individuals’ experiences of stress, the practice of mindfulness meditation may help regulate the physical stress response and ultimately reduce the risk and severity of stress-related diseases.
The dorsal prefrontal cortex (top left region of each brain section) is made more effective in people who practice mindfulness meditation and is important in higher-level functioning. This has been linked to working memory, inhibition, and planning.
“Mindfulness meditation is about paying attention to your experience, and I think it helped these stressed out unemployed (people) in our study by helping them notice how they were reacting to stresses,” Dr. Creswell said. “With mindfulness training, (the participants) could take a step back and begin to change ineffective reactivity patterns to more effective responses to life stressors.”