What You Gain by Training Your Brain

Short-term mindfulness meditation can physically alter the connections in your brain. And according to the authors of a recent study, these results “…could provide a means for intervention to improve or prevent mental disorders.”

Publishing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS ) scientists Yi-Yuan Tang of Texas Tech University (TTU) and Michael Posner of the University of Oregon (UO) reported improved mood changes and increased brain-signaling connections after a month of mindfulness meditation.

The specific mindfulness meditation technique, called integrative body-mind training (IBMT), involves focus rather than relaxation. This form of mindfulness meditation increased both the density of axons connecting brain cells, and the protective myelin sheaths surrounding those axons. Changes occurred within the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain important for attention  and self-regulation .

Deficits in activation of the anterior cingulate are found in attention deficit disorder (ADD), depression, and schizophrenia, among other disorders.

Researchers measured key areas of the brain before and after meditation training using a non-invasive, MRI-based technology known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI ). Pathways connecting areas of the brain can be examined using this technique. With advances in DTI technology, the ability to visualize anatomical connections between different parts of the brain, non-invasively and on an individual, is a major breakthrough for neuroscience research. They found evidence of measurable changes in the connections associated with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which occurred even after short exposure to focused meditation.

Connective pathways between different areas of the brain are known as “white matter” and consist of the bundles of insulated axons connecting brain structures (appearing white because of the protective, fatty myelin sheath surrounding the axons).

“This study gives us a much more detailed picture of what it is that is actually changing,” Posner said on the TTU News website. “We did confirm the exact locations of the white-matter changes that we had found previously. And now we show that both myelination and axon density are improving. The order of changes we found may be similar to changes found during brain development in early childhood, allowing a new way to reveal how such changes might influence emotional and cognitive development.”

The improved mood changes noted are based on self-ratings of subjects based on a standard six-dimensional mood-state measure. A previous study using the same techniques noted lower levels of anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue in the experimental group as compared to the relaxation control group.

The meditation training was delivered over a period of four weeks in 30-minute sessions, either as integrative body-mind training or relaxation training with each group receiving a total of about 11 hours of training. Changes in axon density appeared after two weeks of training, and an increase in myelination after a month of training.

Researchers did not observe white matter changes in the group receiving only relaxation-oriented meditation, which emphasizes sequential relaxation of different muscle groups.

“When we got the results, we all got very excited because all of the other training exercises, like working-memory training or computer-based training, only have been shown to change myelination,” Tang said. “We believe these changes may be reflective of the time of training involved in IBMT. We found a different pattern of neural plasticity induced by the training.”

A recent review sums up the excitement of what is happening in the field of brain training: “Apparent from adequately controlled studies, brain training is a groundbreaking approach with potential to transform the panorama of non-pharmacological therapy,” (Rabipour and Raz, 2012).

Russell Phillips, Ph.D., Director of Research Solutions, Brain Resource has been researching how the brain handles stress and anxiety for 20 years when he began working at NYU and then at Stanford. Russell is currently located in San Francisco and can be reached at Russell.phillips@brainresource.com. Read more from Russell at MyBrainSolutions.com/library .

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