Can Meditation Change the Brain?

Approximately 25% of the British population will experience a mental health problem each year 1)McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey. The NHS Information Centre for health and social care.. A more recent study by McManus et al from 2016, stated that 1 in 6 people in England report experiencing anxiety or both anxiety and depression in any given week4)McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014. Leeds: NHS digital.. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) clinical guidelines advocate the use of antidepressant medication as a frontline treatment for these mental health diagnoses. Is it any wonder that the UK pharmaceutical industry is thriving at present with predictions for further profit in the future? Statistics provided by Innomech in 2018 state that in ‘2015 the sector was worth £28.8 billion but a new report from GlobalData predicts that with current market trends this figure will rise to £43 billion by 2020.2)The Growth of the UK Pharmaceutical Sector. Innomech. Sep 25, 2018 | Blog, Medical, Pharmaceutical Archives.’ But are drugs always the answer to today’s ever increasing diagnoses of depression and anxiety? 

Mindfulness meditation, with its roots in ancient Buddhist practice has evolved into a number of secular therapies and treatment programmes, focussing primarily on the awareness of the present moment and simply noticing thoughts and feelings as they come and go. Mindfulness meditation has become a more widely accepted form of therapy in cases of anxiety and depression3)Ireland T (2014) What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do To Your Brain? Scientific American.. According to an article by Alice Walton, ‘studies show that meditation has a variety of neurological benefits, from changes in brain volume to decreasing activity in parts of the brain involved with stress.5)Walton A. (2015) 7 Ways Meditation can Actually Change The Brain. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/#498e8bc01465 accessed 17/10/2019’ 

Research continues to suggest that by practicing meditation, brain structure can change. Enhanced connectivity between brain regions and changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the “me” centres of the brain are significant neurological benefits to the ancient practice. In 2011, a study featured in the journal Psychiatry Research detailed the use of brain scans to explore the theory that 8 weeks of a mindfulness training regime named Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) increased the cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is featured in emotional regulation, memory and learning.6)Hölzel, Britta K et al. “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density.” Psychiatry research vol. 191,1 (2011): 36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006 

While scientists are still working to understand the effects of volume increases or decreases of the hippocampus, it would seem that increases correlate to improved emotional regulation, while decreases are a risk factor for negative emotions, like stress. Additionally, several mental health disorders, including major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are associated with decreased volume and density of the hippocampus 7)Welch, A. (2018) 4 Ways Meditation Changes the Brain. https://www.everydayhealth.com/meditation/ways-changes-brain/ accessed 17/10/2019. Decreases in the volume of the amygdala, the part of the brain involved with experiencing emotions like fear, stress, and anxiety were also reported. The smaller it is, the less apt it is to dictate our emotional responses, especially those of the “fight-or-flight” nature. 

When talking to the Harvard Gazette about her own very recent (2019) study, entitled “Strengthened Hippocampal Circuits Underlie Enhanced Retrieval of Extinguished Fear Memories Following Mindfulness Training”, Gunes Sevnic,  postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital & Harvard Medical School stated, “Mindfulness training may improve emotion regulation though changing neurobiological responses associated with our ability to remember that a stimulus is no longer threatening.”8)https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/10/mindfulness-meditation-study-shows-changes-in-neural-responses-to-pain-and-fear/ Accessed 17/10/2019

Sara W. Lazar, PhD, an Associate Researcher in the Psychiatry Department at Massachusetts General Hospital and an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, whilst also one of the leading authorities of the Neuroscience of Yoga and Meditation, was the senior author for Sevnic’s paper around reducing the memory of fear using mindfulness. Using the data from the study she explains, “fear and anxiety have a habitual component to them as the memory of something that provoked fear in the past will trigger a habitual fear response when we are reminded of the event, even if there is no actual present-moment threat. The data indicates that mindfulness can help us recognise that some fear reactions are disproportional to the threat, and thus reduces the fear response to those stimuli. Mindfulness can also enhance our ability to remember this new, less-fearful reaction, and break the anxiety habit.”9)https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/10/mindfulness-meditation-study-shows-changes-in-neural-responses-to-pain-and-fear/ Accessed 17/10/2019  

Lazar and Sevnic’s study concluded that “functional connectivity” between these regions and how often they are activated together also changes. The connections between areas associated with attention and concentration become stronger whilst the connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker.10)Sevinc G, Hölzel BK, Greenberg J, Gard T, Brunsch V, Hashmi JA, Vangel M, Orr SP, Milad MR, Lazar SW. Strengthened Hippocampal Circuits Underlie Enhanced Retrieval of Extinguished Fear Memories Following Mindfulness Training. Biological Psychiatry [Internet]. 2019. 

Further supporting evidence for brain changes as a result of mindfulness comes from a team at Stanford University, who, in a 2012 study discovered that Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) brought about changes in brain regions involved in attention, as well as relief from symptoms of social anxiety.11)Walton A. (2015) 7 Ways Meditation can Actually Change The Brain. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/#498e8bc01465 accessed 17/10/2019

Mindworks, a mindfulness meditation app, support the evidence that anxiety neurotransmitters may decrease, whereas the pleasurable neurotransmitter dopamine may increase. These and other subtle changes result in an overall feeling of improvement in health and wellbeing. This is further strengthened by Alice Walton who reported that studies suggest that meditation helps relieve our subjective levels of anxiety and depression, and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being.12)Walton A. (2015) 7 Ways Meditation can Actually Change The Brain. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/#498e8bc01465 accessed 17/10/2019 

Walton also found that ‘mindfulness meditation, in contrast to attending to the breath only, can reduce anxiety – and that these changes seem to be mediated through the brain regions associated with those self-referential (“me-centered”) thoughts.13)Walton A. (2015) 7 Ways Meditation can Actually Change The Brain. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/#498e8bc01465 accessed 17/10/2019’ Meditation is also known for the development of certain areas of the brain, such as those that are responsible for memory, compassion, and empathy.

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References   [ + ]

1. McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey. The NHS Information Centre for health and social care.
2. The Growth of the UK Pharmaceutical Sector. Innomech. Sep 25, 2018 | Blog, Medical, Pharmaceutical Archives.
3. Ireland T (2014) What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do To Your Brain? Scientific American.
4. McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014. Leeds: NHS digital.
5, 11, 12, 13. Walton A. (2015) 7 Ways Meditation can Actually Change The Brain. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/#498e8bc01465 accessed 17/10/2019
6. Hölzel, Britta K et al. “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density.” Psychiatry research vol. 191,1 (2011): 36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
7. Welch, A. (2018) 4 Ways Meditation Changes the Brain. https://www.everydayhealth.com/meditation/ways-changes-brain/ accessed 17/10/2019
8, 9. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/10/mindfulness-meditation-study-shows-changes-in-neural-responses-to-pain-and-fear/ Accessed 17/10/2019
10. Sevinc G, Hölzel BK, Greenberg J, Gard T, Brunsch V, Hashmi JA, Vangel M, Orr SP, Milad MR, Lazar SW. Strengthened Hippocampal Circuits Underlie Enhanced Retrieval of Extinguished Fear Memories Following Mindfulness Training. Biological Psychiatry [Internet]. 2019.

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