Harvard neuroscientists recently ran an experiment observing 16 people in an eight-week Mindfulness-based stress reduction course (MBSR). Prior research had suggested that the MBSR programs produce positive psychological effects and could help relieve symptoms of numerous conditions; but the goal of this study was to look into changes in grey matter concentration before and after participants completed the training.
Through magnetic resonance imaging, they found those who had completed the course substantially increased their concentration of grey matter in areas of the brain involved in learning and memory, perspective taking, regulating emotions, and executive function.
There were increases in the posterior cingulate cortex (an integral part of the limbic system associated with emotional intelligence, learning, memory), the temporo-parietal junction (involved in information processing and perception), and the cerebellum (associated with coordination).
The study also confirmed increases in the grey matter concentration in the hippocampus (which plays a role in the consolidating info from short-term memory to long-term). This harmonizes with other studies that show larger hippocampal volumes in long-term meditators - showing a direct, causal link between meditation and changes to the brain's anatomy.
Therapeutic interventions that incorporate training in mindfulness meditation have become increasingly popular, but to date little is known about neural mechanisms associated with these interventions. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre–post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an MBSR program. Anatomical magnetic resonance (MR) images from 16 healthy, meditation-naïve participants were obtained before and after they underwent the 8-week program. Changes in gray matter concentration were investigated using voxel-based morphometry, and compared with a waiting list control group of 17 individuals. Analyses in a prioriregions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared with the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.
The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter, Eileen Luders, Arthur W. Toga, Natasha Lepore, Christian Gaser, NeuroImage, Volume 45, Issue 3, 15 April 2009, Pages 672-678, ISSN 1053-8119
Although the systematic study of meditation is still in its infancy, research has provided evidence for meditation-induced improvements in psychological and physiological well-being. Moreover, meditation practice has been shown not only to benefit higher-order cognitive functions but also to alter brain activity. Nevertheless, little is known about possible links to brain structure. Using high-resolution MRI data of 44 subjects, we set out to examine the underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation with different regional specificity (i.e., global, regional, and local). For this purpose, we applied voxel-based morphometry in association with a recently validated automated parcellation approach. We detected significantly larger gray matter volumes in meditators in the right orbito-frontal cortex (as well as in the right thalamus and left inferior temporal gyrus when co-varying for age and/or lowering applied statistical thresholds). In addition, meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus. Both orbito-frontal and hippocampal regions have been implicated in emotional regulation and response control. Thus, larger volumes in these regions might account for meditators' singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior. We further suggest that these regional alterations in brain structures constitute part of the underlying neurological correlate of long-term meditation independent of a specific style and practice. Future longitudinal analyses are necessary to establish the presence and direction of a causal link between meditation practice and brain anatomy.