Can Mindful Meditation Reduce Inflammation and Alter the Brain?
by Lisa DiFalco
Meditation has been used increasingly in recent years to reduce stress and allow for a calmer mental state. This mind-body practices has a long history of use but it has been only recently that meditation has received renewed attention and appreciation from the established medical community. Meditation practitioners often report feeling better and are more “open-hearted” after a meditative session that includes the elements of a quiet location, a comfortable posture, a focus of attention, and an open attitude. However, are there any measurable benefits to regular mindful meditation that go beyond the anecdotes? Can meditation actually assist patients in controlling inflammatory conditions naturally and affect long-lasting changes in various structures of the brain? Recent studies show that this may in fact be the case.
Study results published in the Biological Psychiatry in February offer thorough methodology to support the idea that mindfulness meditation can positively impact the brains and health of practitioners. Understand what this study and other supporting research is beginning to demonstrate about the positive influence of meditation on mind and body.
The Link of Mindfulness Meditation with Reduced Inflammatory Disease Risk
- David Creswell, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, led a study on meditation that used an effective placebo for the control group. In the study, Alterations in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Link Mindfulness Meditation With Reduced Interleukin-6: A Randomized Controlled Trial, 35 stressed unemployed and job-seeking adults were placed in one of two programs. They received a three-day intensive relaxation training (control group) or residential mindfulness meditation program. An instance of how the two groups differed is that while both groups performed stretching exercises, the mindfulness group was encouraged to pay attention to sensations throughout their body, while the relaxation group chattered and enjoyed a leader that joked around.
After participation in either three-day program, all participants shared that they felt more relaxed and refreshed. The group of researchers tested for alterations in DMN rsFC in group participants of both programs. The group receiving residential mindfulness meditation, in comparison to the group receiving relaxation training, showed:
- Differences in initial follow-up brain scans of participants of the mindfulness meditation program, including increased communication among portions of the brain that handle reactions to stress with other areas related to calm and focus and specifically, “increased posterior cingulate cortex reFC with left dlPFC;” and
- Lower blood levels of a marker used to determine unhealthy inflammation seen in the “improvements in IL-6 at [the] 4-month follow-up.”
The conclusion drawn from the study was that it offered:
“The first evidence that mindfulness meditation training functionally couples the DMN with a region known to be important in top-down executive control at rest (left dlPFC), which, in turn, is associated with improvements in a marker of inflammatory disease risk.”
Researchers believe that brain changes due to mindfulness meditation were direct contributors to reduced levels of inflammation levels, although the mechanism is still to be determined. This may provide additional support for those that recommend or use meditation to reduce feelings of pain for chronic inflammatory conditions, although more research is needed to determine any specific dosage for best results.
Mindful Meditation Changes Brain Matter
One of the first scientists to test anecdotal claims about meditation using brain scans was Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. In Lazar’s first study, Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness, published in 2005 in Neuroreport, long lasting changes in the physical structure of the brain were found in participants that had “extensive Insight meditation experience.” Compared with matched controls,
“Brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants…including the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula.”
This study offered evidence of cortical plasticity that was experience dependent and associated with meditation practice. An additional surprising finding in this study was that:
“…[I]n this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.”
Did meditation allow practitioners to reduce age-associated cortex shrinkage? This gave rise to a follow-up study, Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Those that had never meditated participated in groups, one of which was a mindfulness-based stress reduction program for eight-weeks. Researchers found that in the group that had learned meditation, there were differences in thickness in:
- The posterior cingulate;
- The left hippocampus;
- The temporo parietal junction,
- The Pons; and
- The amygdala.
These areas when taken together impact self-relevance and mind wandering, learning, cognition, emotional regulation, memory, empathy, compassion, perspective-taking, production of regulatory neurotransmitters, the fight or flight response and stress. There may now be some measurable data that can be produced to support ideas that meditation helps with learning, awareness, and being more “open-hearted” with others, although it remains to be seen whether a body of reliable studies become available as to the lasting effects of mindful meditation on the brain and any potentially reduced cortex shrinkage found in aging populations of meditation practitioners.
Why is This Area of Research of Interest?
Healthcare professionals, behavior analysts, case workers and patients would be interested in understanding more about the potential influence of meditation to not only reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, but to potentially reduce levels of inflammatory markers in the blood and to reshape and thicken areas of the brain. There are NCCIH-supported studies investigating the use of meditation for various populations, such as teens with fibromyalgia and other types of chronic pain conditions, and adults with multiple sclerosis, PTSD, high blood pressure and more. Additional research on the topic may shed light on new applications of meditation and provide support for those suggesting meditation as a natural alternative to handling pain and reducing stress levels for both physical and mental well-being.