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Mindfulness Meditation Changes the Brain in Just 8 Weeks


Many people say meditation makes them feel more relaxed, peaceful, and focused, but does it do anything physically to the brain? Yes, say researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), who have documented changes in the brain’s gray matter after just 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation changes brain structure

According to the study’s senior author, Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvement and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

In previous studies, including those by Lazar’s group, researchers have found structural differences and signaling changes in the brains of experienced meditation practitioners when compared with people who do not meditate. These studies, however, could not document that the changes were the result of meditation.

In a similar vein, a scientific team from the University of California, Davis, reported that the psychological changes associated with meditation are linked to the activity of an enzyme called telomerase. Their study was the first to show a relationship between positive effects of meditation and levels of telomerase.

In the new MGH study, investigators took magnetic resonance images of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and then after they participated in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. Images were taken of areas known to be involved in memory and learning. A control group of nonmeditators was also imaged.

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The participants met once a week for sessions that included meditation, and they also were given audio recordings for guided meditation practice at home. Meditators were asked to document how much time they practiced daily.

The meditation participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes daily in mindfulness practice. An evaluation of their brain images showed increased gray matter density in the hippocampus (learning and memory area) and a decrease in gray matter density in the amygdale, which is involved in stress and anxiety.

The meditators also showed structural changes in areas of the brain associated with introspection, compassion, and self-awareness. None of the brain changes observed in the meditation group were seen in the controls, indicating that the changes were not merely the result of the passage of time.

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to be helpful in a variety of health situations, including reducing fatigue and depression in patients who have multiple sclerosis, easing burnout in physicians, and relieving symptoms in fibromyalgia patients.

This study was the first to document structural brain changes associated with mindfulness meditation. Britta Holzel, PhD, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University, noted that “we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”

Holzel BK et al. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience 2010 Mar; 5(1): 11-17
Lazar SW et al. Neuroreport 2005 Nov 28; 16(17): 1893-97
Lazar SW et al. Neuroreport 2000 May 15; 11(7): 1581-85
Massachusetts General Hospital