Topic: The Brain -Effects of Meditation on Neuronal Plasticity

Blog #1 by Isabel Fitzpatrick


Topic: The Brain
Effects of Meditation on Neuronal Plasticity: Can Mindful Practice Help with My Depression? 

While medicine continues to make extraordinary advancements and to produce favorable results in the treatment of psychological disorders, side effects and other set backs have desperate patients seeking all other possible remedies to find relief from their distressing condition. Specifically, patients often resort to cognitive therapeutic practices in conjunction with, or sometimes in lieu of, a medicinal product. In recent years, meditation has received increasing attention from neuroscientists as its popularity among the public has grown. A possible reason for its increase in popularity is revealed in studies that show meditation’s ability to significantly improve long-term neuronal plasticity, What is this fancy term you may ask? Neuronal plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize or change itself due to new connections being made between brain cells. How cool is that?! Plasticity is important to people suffering from disorders because it provides scientific verification, and thus hope, for these people that they may have control over the rewiring of their brains in order to diminish their suffering. 

Could the power be in OUR OWN hands? 

This topic is highly controversial, and many people in the field of neuroscience would argue that the excitement surrounding meditation is due to alternative benefits it has to offer that disclude the benefit of treating psychological illness. Neuropsychology researcher and writer Elbert Russell states, “in recent years the expectation that meditation would be an effective psychotherapy has largely been reversed”, speaking of his belief that meditation may allow one to attain higher states of consciousness, but does not explore the unconscious nor address the emotional issues of the patient, which is at the heart of psychotherapy (Bogart, 1991). While there sometimes may be a difference in goals between meditation and psychotherapy, this does not mean patients with disorders such as depression or anxiety cannot make positive progress through meditative treatment. I will argue against Russell’s position in my next few blog posts using scientific evidence that meditative practices do indeed promote neuronal plasticity and thus effectively treat psychological disorders such as depression. 

So, TELL ME: How EXACTLY does mindful meditation help? 

Depressive symptoms are often manifested in the form of negative self-thought. Meditation, or “mindfulness”, can treat depression by detaching this negativity toward the self and developing a more accepting, compassionate self-image. In an experiment conducted by Lutz and associates in 2015, twenty-two mid-to-long-term meditation practitioners (LTM), meditators who had at least one year of meditative practice, and twenty-two meditation-naive participants (MNP), persons with no current or recent meditative practice, were subjected to a variety of stimuli. Both negative and positive descriptive adjectives from the following categories were used as stimuli: appearance, social aspects, transient condition, talents, dispositions and neutral words. Participants were instructed to choose at least six self-critical adjectives (SC) that they believed described them, six negative adjectives that weren’t related to the self (NNSC), and six self-praising adjectives (SP). Each of the four different conditions of stimuli (SC, NNSC, SP, and neutral or NT) containing a group of at least six adjectives, were presented one condition at a time. At the beginning of every condition, a specific introductory phrase was given: for SC “I am too”, for SP “I am very”, for NNSC “I am not”, and for NT “It is”. Subjects were shown an adjective belonging to one condition for 3 seconds. Then subjects were shown a fixation point to which they would focus themselves for 2 seconds. Then another adjective of the same condition would be presented until all adjectives were shown. Blocks signifying a rest period of 24 seconds were interjected between conditions.  

An fMRI was conducted on the subject as they participated in this experiment. (Real-time neurofeedback… my favorite!). Functional connectivity between the LTM and MNP groups during self-related emotional conditions (EMO) were compared. The results showed increased activation of the dorso-medial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) in LTM subjects, which is associated with mindfulness and increased processing of emotion. LTM also showed increased activations in lateral mid- and inferior prefrontal regions during SC and SP stimuli versus NT stimuli. It is suggested that the lateral prefrontal areas are involved in cognitive labeling of emotional stimuli and open awareness, which is the ability to recognize emotional thoughts while staying detached. Therefore, this could mean enhanced awareness of emotion, yet mindful emotional regulation that produces a non-reactive attitude toward emotional stimuli in LTM. Sounds like the kind of superpower I would like to have!

BUT WAIT. There’s more…

Positive functional relations between the DMPFC and regions of the precuneus and occipito-parietal lobe were found for SC and SP stimuli versus NT stimuli in MNP, while no self-relevant stimuli resulted in functional relations between the DMPFC and other regions in LTM. The precuneus is suggested in general to be a part of self-processing, while neighboring occipito-parietal regions are involved in visual attention. Thus, the stronger relation between these midline regions in MNP implies stronger attentional processing of self-relevant emotional stimuli compared to neutral stimuli. Contrastingly, in LTM the stimulus type had little effect on level of self-focused attentional processing (Lutz, 2015). These findings support the claim that people with depression may experience neuronal plasticity after practice of long-term meditation, which will be affirmed in their alleviation of excessive attention to negative self-thought due to weakened connections between midline regions and strengthened connections in various prefrontal regions. Sign me up!

Stay tuned for next week's post continuing on the topic of the brain. 

 


Mindful Boston intern Isabel Fitzpatrick writes this blog.  It introduces a new scholarly research study/article each week that exhibits the efficacy of MBSR from a neuroscience standpoint with Izzy's own break-down and commentary.

Bogart, Ph.D., G. (1991). Meditation and Psychotherapy: A Review of the Literature. Retrieved December 3, 2015, from http://www.buddhanet.net/medpsych.htm

Lutz, J., Brühl, A., Doerig, N., Scheerer, H., Achermann, R., Weibel, A., . . . Herwig, U. (2015). Altered processing of self-related emotional stimuli in mindfulness meditators. NeuroImage, 124, 958-967. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.09.057