8-week mindfulness meditation program changes brain structure

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Washington, Jan 22 (ANI): A new study has revealed that participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program lead to measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.

A team, led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers, reports the results of their study, the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain's grey matter.

For the study, MR images were take of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. In addition to weekly meetings that included practice of mindfulness meditation - which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings and state of mind - participants received audio recordings for guided meditation practice and were asked to keep track of how much time they practiced each day. A set of MR brain images were also taken of a control group of non-meditators over a similar time interval.

Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses. The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.

Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. Although no change was seen in a self-awareness-associated structure called the insula, which had been identified in earlier studies, the authors suggest that longer-term meditation practice might be needed to produce changes in that area. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.

"It is fascinating to see the brain's plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life." says Britta Hölzel, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany.

The study will appear in the January 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. (ANI)

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