Meditation in the Membranes

Meditation leads to visible brain changes in the area controlling emotional regulation

(RxWiki News) Meditation has been gaining popularity in the US recently. But many are still unsure if its benefits can be proven. Now brain scans have shown an impact from meditation training.

A recent study has found that meditation training can change how your brain functions.

Specifically, mediation can lead to positive changes in the part of the brain that regulates your emotions.

"Relax - learn meditation techniques."

The study was led by Gaëlle Desbordes, PhD, of the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology, Boston University.

Dr. Desbordes and her colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to look at the brains of 36 people who had gone through eight weeks of different training programs. Twelve of the individuals came from a larger group who had undergone eight weeks of training in mindful attention meditation at Emory University in Atlanta. None had had previous meditation experience.

Another 12 participated in eight weeks of compassion meditation that aims to increase a person's kindness and compassion for themselves and others. The other 12, a control group, participated in an 8-week health education course. All 36 individuals had their brains scanned in the three weeks before the 8-week courses began and within three weeks after completed their programs.

During the fMRI scans, the participants were shown 216 different images showing people in situations that might arouse positive, negative or neutral emotions. None of the participants meditated while viewing the images, and all were assessed for depression or anxiety symptoms before and after their participation in the programs.

The researchers found significant changes in the two meditation groups. Those who went through mindful attention meditation training had a decrease in how their right amygdala responded in viewing all the images.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes and regulates emotion, so less activation here means better emotional stability and a better ability to handle stress.

The compassion meditation group also had lower activation in their right amygdala for positive and neutral images, but the activity picked up during the negative images that showed human suffering.

Despite this uptick in response to negative images, these individuals had lower depression scores. The researchers suggested that practicing compassion meditation might have positive effects on that person even while they experience more compassion toward others' suffering.

The control group individuals who underwent eight weeks of health education training without meditation did not have any changes in their amygdala.

"Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing," said Dr. Desbordes in a release about the study.

The study was published November 1 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The research was funded by grants from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

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Review Date: 
November 15, 2012