Can Mindfulness Change Your Brain Structure?

Gray. A color often associated with negative things such as aging, ambiguity, and bad weather…

But there’s one place where more gray is good – and that’s in your brain.

A higher concentration of gray matter in certain areas of the brain is correlated with higher intelligence. So now the question is, how do you increase the concentration of gray matter in your brain?

Mindfulness may be one answer, according to Britta Holzel, PhD from the University of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Often incorporated into psychotherapy, mindfulness has been shown to be useful in reducing the symptoms of a number of disorders while improving psychological well-being.

But does it actually change the structure of the brain?

Holzel and her colleagues wanted to find out.

So they investigated what brain regions would change after people took part in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course.

They recruited subjects with little meditation experience – no meditation classes in the past six months and less than ten classes in their lifetime. The MBSR group included 16 participants, and the waitlist-control group had 17 participants.

The MBSR program is widely used, and consists of eight weekly group meetings in which participants learn to do body scans, mindful yoga, and sitting meditation.

Participants also received 45-minute audio exercises of guided mindfulness practice to do daily at home, and were asked to incorporate mindfulness into their everyday activities.

Mindfulness was measured using the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, a scale of 39-items that measures five aspects of mindfulness.

And to see what changes occurred in the brain, the MBSR group did an MRI scan 2 weeks before and after the program. The control group was also scanned twice with a two-month gap in between scans.

Holzel was hoping to see a noticeable difference in the brains of participants…

…did the brains of the MBSR group look different after their participation in the program?

After just eight weeks of the mindfulness program, the MBSR group showed increases in gray matter in clusters of several regions of the brain – the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) and the cerebellum.

Each of these areas is associated with a function that is known to be improved through mindfulness practices. For example, the hippocampus and cerebellum help to regulate emotion, and the TPJ is involved in social cognition.

Meanwhile, losing too much gray matter or damaging some of these areas can lead to psychopathology. But in areas like the hippocampus, volume loss is reversible – i.e., if mindfulness leads to an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, there is a possibility that it could help with conditions such as depression or PTSD which are associated with reduced volume of the hippocampus.

Due to the design, there are some limitations to this study.

Because a wait-list control design was used, we can’t say for sure that the content of the mindfulness exercises were what caused these changes in the brain.

The effects could have resulted from other aspects of the program such as group social interaction, stress education, or stretching exercises. The hippocampus has been shown to be affected by exercise, and repeated activation of a brain region is also known to increase gray matter.

And another important thing to consider…

…the subjects in this study weren’t randomly assigned. They were a group of people who had enrolled in an MBSR course, and they were either physician- or self-referred to the program, in search of stress-reduction.

Despite these limitations, this research suggests that engaging in mindfulness meditation may be one way to change your brain structure to improve mental function.

To learn more about this study, you can find it in volume 91 of Psychiatry Research.

Have you found mindfulness to be helpful to your patients? Please leave a comment below.

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22 Comments

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  2. "In-Association"with Holy Spirit, unemployed, Florida, USA says:

    I am amazed with the “not so conventional” modalities available; but since conventuals/non-evolved healing services produce so limited benefit, indeed practices that actually promote/quicken death, what is the alternative? But my question and my quest remains the background and cause of seemly ignorance of our past history, that a hint of a course of action may be derived? What are the factors: genetics? Spiritual? Or a combination of factors, or simply a mixture of Spiritual and genetics? The Geno Project (mapping of human genes) completed, the often statement concerning the presence of Neanthal genes world-wide! But before investigation of human migration, let’s look at the incidence of the 1-million years ago plummeting of the earth via astroids, the vertical axis caused to osculate, the 4-seasons, the melt-down of the north & south poles, “The Flood” dispersing the population. But before the flood, we understand Egypt & Americaa were joined, Native Americans(Japheth people), built the pyramids in Egypt & Central America where food & fiber seeds, as well as the Cuneiform Writings(in Latin root) were stored – again about a million years ago – today it is believed translations by Martin Luther into Latin, then his German translation(a), in 1500’s, then translated into English completed year 1621, known as King James 1 Authorized Abridged Holy Bible. Again, (1621 -to- 2015) why are we humans so lax in educating each generation? It appears to result from spiritual & genetics: my childhood education, yet a new-born, a family tradition, I received spiritual education following prayer to exocism of devil (to open mind, then “New-Born Education” beyond high school (to enable comprehension) & to read and talk.to enable informed decision & to speak to reject devil & accept Holy Spirit; allowing “In-Association with Holy Spirit. I could do so because I had enough recessive genes that my brain could receive input & impressions from Holy Spirit (recall Abraham received, also Emmanuel, also Saul/Paul received from Holy Spirit). What changed the physical that humans could no longer receive from Holy Spirit? We read Japheth people were first people; Eve, then Adam had offspring via snake, producing carnivorous egg-laying creatures; further cross-breeding produced Shem, then Ham. Those offspring lacked the brain to hear Hear Holy Spirit speak, nor to receive impressions from Holy Spirit. Book of Revelation written 1-million years ago, states “knowledge will increase” (as we humans develop to better comprehend), The human genes have been mapped! As of December 2013, the human brain has been mapped. Via augmentation of genes we can all have good-genes offspring. Via MRI of a person’s brain &. comparison to the brain mapping, doctors may locate brain damage, apply adult stem-cells, restore brain to full potential. The future looks good. Soon the next generation may, or will be mental able, however, it is our reaponsibility to pray devil out of their mind & to provide “New-Born Education” and help with the decision for “Christ”. Keeping in mind the devil never invents. he is a destroyer! All knowledge was given by Holy Spirit! The future indeed looks good. Soon we will have knowledge and we promote healing services. Marion Wayne Horne

  3. Carefreevt says:

    There are plenty of studies out there that prove what religions, philosophers and scholars have know for centuries. “A joyful heart is good medicine… (The Bible)” Kant, Bacon, Einstein, Dubos, Osler, Rumi, Cousins and many many others have written about what is shown in many many studies. Does it matter whether it comes from a 10-20 minute a day sitting practice or from a 20-40 minute rhythmic breathing/stretching class? Breathe, focus, pay attention with intent in a kind, loving, positive way towards yourself and others all day everyday… Don’t need an fMRI to ‘prove’ that is good for you… Spend the money on this research on fixing Congress, opening the dialogue between communities stuck and fixated on the past, get out of your mind and into the present moment. You are not your mind! It is only another organ in your body you can train…

  4. Lynne says:

    Thanks for the great share. I agree that the study has some limitations but I can say that it still shows what potential mindfullness can do. I believe more studies should be made and I am looking forward to your next post.

  5. Peadar Maxwell says:

    You rightly point out the limitations of this particular study, but is doesn’t take away from the fact that mindfulness really does have a huge influence on how we humans function. I find in my work with traumatised children and adolescents that following a mindfulness exercise they are more thoughtful in the session and will often show great empathy towards their parents.

  6. Elaine Dolan says:

    The results of this study make me surmise that people like convening with like-minded people. It’s the true purpose of being alive: nurturing interaction and community.

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    • Reinivan says:

      Kate ~ I love your descriptions of both Community and Compassion.I apaiecrpte you bringing in the concept of sensitivity, too. So many of us on this path of love and compassion are here because we have sensitive hearts. We want to keep them open. But we also want to learn how to do that skillfully, without being hurt.Wholeness and belonging. Ahhh. Thanks Kate, you’ve given me many great concepts to consider.Twitter:

    • Early says:

      I told my kids we’d play after I found what I neddee. Damnit.

  7. Mary Guay says:

    We can feel empowered to take action to make a difference in our brain’s functioning and even it’s structure! We can all experiment and see what our personal results are. I’ve seen positive outcomes with many clients! The power’s in the person!www.maryguay.com

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    • Israel says:

      I definitely have knee pain but the cause of it is ukonnwn and surgery right now is not a option. I can’t run, go up or down stairs with out pain, sitting or standing for a long time hurts, driving hurts sometimes, I cant put all or some of my weight on it. I get a burning pain in the inside of knee, it makes a popping feeling, and on the top outer ledge of it. I’m going to go see an orthopedic spine surgeon this week, but this would be doctor number 4 that I have seen for my knee. I really just want to run again and have someone tell me that they know why I’m in so much pain. I can deal with the back pain b/c that never stopped me from running, riding, or got in the way of my life but my knee has. So if anyone can give me clues or help me out with this I would greatly appreciate it. If anyone knows of a Dr. House for knees please let me know!

    • Cecep says:

      I have recently celpmetod a course in mindfulness and can honestly say that it has chamged the way I look at situations such as crisis and fear. for the first time in 50 yrs I feel in control of my life.

  8. I have been having patients learn to use mindfulness in their everyday lives since 1996 and seen so many benefit from it. I am so glad that research is catching up with what I have seen clinically. Finding ways to treat patients without medication and the side-effects is so important. Mindfulness is a skill that is helpful for the rest of your life. Maybe better than an apple a day…although diet is also important.

  9. I am not surprised, but fascinated at the same time, how the outcome of the study using Mindfulness, movement, meditation — all stress management acquired skills — increases grey matter of the brain. I can only imagine that the use of “bodywork” (touch based feeling communication) would facilitate even more changes in the brain. Although I am not a Psychiatrist or Psychologist, I feel that benefits of The Trager Approach — gentle bodywork & movement education — are absolutely transforming, bringing clients into a much deeper aware state of being and a healthier body-mind. That “state of feeling wellness” when practiced with mindful movement is the key. I am happy to hear that NICABM supports holistic integration and continues with this profound research so needed in this world today. I am also happy to be of service to others as an experienced LMT, Movement Educator and Trager Practitioner. Thanks for your continued educational studies.

  10. Fran says:

    Hi, I was reading Sandi’s post above and was so intrigued because my ex-husband’s girlfriend who is in her 60’s has been deteriorating for the past few years. My ex and I are still best friends and we love her. She used to manage a department and a few years ago started noticing that the words were not coming out right. It got progressively worse and she finally had to go on disability. It is not aphasia, and they put a stent in her brain for a few days a few years ago, and it helped for a short period, which gives me hope that this can be improved. The doctors have all kind of given up and that infuriates me because they told my ex that he will have to institutionalize her soon and that will kill him.

    She understands that she cannot get the words out and she says one or two coherent words and the rest is just gibberish, and she understands when you ask her something. Is there anything you can suggest, I just cannot let this drop and watch her get worse every day. Thanks so much, Fran

  11. Sandi Wilson says:

    I have had 2 strokes and several concussions through the years and have a form of dystonia called laryngeal dystonia. It is a focal dystonia and I have been able to go from living on disability to working full time and owning my own practice. A combination of vestibular activities, mindfulness, stress management, lifestyle changes, chiropractic corrective care and speech therapy helped me to develop a way of speaking (on inhalation) and Botox injections periodically through the year has helped me to return to the speaking world. I had state-of-the art evaluations of my brain function when I was diagnosed at Callier Center in Dallas, TX and I have had EXTENSIVE brain damage. However, due to the plasticity of the brain, the availability of resources, and just plain stubbornness, my life was changed and the quality of my life was enhanced over the years of my battle. Learning to pay attention to our bodies, our minds, and our emotions is a significant tool for any of us who are fighting such a battle, whether the issue is physical, psychological, psychiatric, behavioral or spiritual. God has placed inside of each one of us the capacity to heal. I’ve been told I am a ‘walking miracle’ by the professionals who diagnosed me and did all the brain tests, but I think any of us have the same capacity to heal, and I’m very thankful to have had the support system and the resources I had. I share everything I have learned with my clients (and anybody else who sees the need and asks for help) any time there is a need. “Pass it on” is my motto.

    • Jim Kearney, Bowen Body Work, Rapid Eye Technology, Coppell, Tx says:

      A friend of ours has just acquired the Brain imaging equipment from the Callier Center. I myself never needed to see the evidence of the miraculous recovery such as the one you have experienced. It is brilliant that you have had the drive to heal and the means were made known to you. God’s design of our nervous system is a self evident miracle in itself, let alone giving us the ability to heal what He has designed. I would hazard a guess that you are so much more of a magnificent light to those in your world because of the journey you have travelled. I have done a 10 day Vippassana (Mindfulness) retreat at a Buddhist Wat in Thailand. My fiance and I practice a neurological trauma healing modality called Rapid Eye Technology and an evolution of EFT but will introduce Mindfulness into our self care classes. Thank you for your brilliant testimony. And thank you NICABM for bringing Mindfulness Meditation to the Medical world. We plan on taking your Webinar as well.

    • Diane Cable says:

      Sandi,
      thank you for sharing your healing and success and ‘grace’ with us and the world. I am an Osteopath and got into the profession for the reason that I have always believed that the capacity to heal is inside each one of us and it is a basic tenet of the Osteopathic profession. I also have had a personal run with illness and brain injury and find that mindfulness and meditation and biodynamic cranial sacral therapy has helped me tremendously. My practice is still part time, however I am building. Thank you once again for your wisdom.

  12. Monica says:

    Dear Ruth, Thanks for sharing. Do you know about any resarch about white matter. I understand Feldenkrais Method also impact possitively in the gray matter but, how about the white matter in the brain? Do you know about any resarch regarding restoring the white matter?
    Sincerely,
    Monica

    • Dear Monica,
      I believe that Jerry Posner, Ph.D., at the University of Oregon, has shown changes in white and gray matter resulting from mindfulness meditation.
      Best wishes,
      Jane

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