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'Mindful' Meditation Tied to Healthy Brain Changes: Study

By Barbara Bronson Gray
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, June 12 (HealthDay News) -- Just a few hours of meditation training may change your brain for the better, a small, new study suggests.

Researchers using imaging technology have found that people develop measurable changes in the white matter of the brain after learning "mindfulness meditation." Also called "integrative body-mind training," it involves periods of intense focus and concentration.

"The notable physical changes suggest that short-term meditation can improve self-control, mood, stress response and immunity response," said Michael Posner, a co-author of the study and a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon, in Eugene.

The study was published online June 11 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers randomly assigned 68 undergraduates at Dalian University of Technology, in China, to either a meditation or a relaxation-training group. None of the students had any previous training in meditation.

The authors say their earlier research showed that learning can alter white matter, which affects how the brain learns, acting as a relay system and coordinating among different brain regions.

In the latest study, the researchers set out to measure the degree of alteration, focusing on areas of the brain that they felt were most likely to change from the training the participants received.

The authors used what is called "diffusion tensor imaging," a noninvasive MRI-based technology to delineate white-matter fibers in the brains of participants. They also applied other technology to measure the structural plasticity -- the ability to change and adapt as a result of experience -- of the brain's white matter.

Key areas of the brain were measured before and after the meditation training, which involved 30 minutes of either integrative body-mind training or relaxation training over a two-week period. The training totaled five hours for each group.

The researchers found evidence of measurable changes in white matter associated with a part of the brain network related to self-regulation -- the anterior cingulate cortex -- after short exposure to focused meditation. The same changes did not occur after relaxation-oriented meditation, which emphasizes sequential relaxation of different muscle groups.

The authors note that many problems, including addiction and mental disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder, involve the anterior cingulate cortex. They say 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 these mental disorders.

"This study builds on other work that has confirmed that you can demonstrate structural changes in the brain," said Dr. Nicholas Schiff, an associate professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College, in New York City.

"What's so impressive to me is that, in this study, they actually quantify that there's evidence for changes in the structure of the brain and a dynamic process at work," Schiff said. "It's very important to characterize how the adult brain modifies in response to the environment. This study is a substantial contribution."

More information

The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine has more information on the mind-body connection.

SOURCES: Michael I. Posner, professor emeritus, University of Oregon, Eugene; Nicholas Schiff, M.D., associate professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City; June 11, 2012, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online

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