I know that mindfulness and meditation practices have positive effects not only on the spirit, but also on the brain and body, but some of my patients were not always so certain.
Some would be willing to try anything once, but then there were the others who would kind of look sideways at me with a raised eyebrow, as if to say: “you want me to do what?”
Back a number of years, I had little scientific “proof” to back me up when suggesting meditation to a patient.
Within the last decade, the research community has started to provide crucial evidence that we can now share with our patients.
Granted, this research field is still in its infancy and not all of the studies have followed strict research protocol (randomized, controlled). But we’re making headway, including data from a new UCLA study that was just published in NeuroImage this past summer.
Eileen Luders, PhD, led a group of UCLA researchers out of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging who looked at differences in the brains of meditators.
They took 27 active meditators and 27 control participants and matched them by age and gender. The meditators had been practicing meditation anywhere from 5 to 46 years and followed a number of different meditation styles, including Shamatha, Vipassana, and Zazen. The average age of the mediators was 52 years old.
The results from brain imaging showed: pronounced structural connectivity in the meditators throughout entire pathways of the brain.
Basically, the areas of greatest difference were seen in parts of the brain that deal with “inter-regional” brain activity and communication.
So the meditators had stronger pathways connecting different regions of the brain, which may keep their brain functioning strong even against age-related brain atrophy.
Are you still with me? I know, they didn’t teach this in my Anatomy 101 way back when (or if they did, it apparently didn’t stick).
This study follows one published by UCLA two years ago showing the specific brain regions and brain mass affected by meditation. Remember reading that meditation may increase gray matter? Yup, that was from this initial UCLA study.
Now, it is not possible to determine a specific cause and effect relationship with these findings. It could be that people who gravitate toward meditation already have enhanced neural connectivity. We don’t know, since the use of meditators in this study means that the study wasn’t randomized.
Do you want to know the nitty-gritty of mindfulness as it relates to neuroscience – and then how to apply that to the improvement of patient outcomes?
We have created courses on mindfulness demonstrating the impact of mindfulness. If you’re interested, click here.