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Harvard Study: Meditation Study Shows Growth in Several Key Brain Areas

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Meditation Changes the Brain

For several decades, the effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) practices have been known to help alleviate the symptoms of a wide range of emotional, behavioral and psychiatric challenges. From helping people battle anxiety, depression, mood swings and post-traumatic stress disorder to increasing overall well-being and developing peace-of-mind, activities such as yoga, tai chi and meditation have gained so much in notoriety, acceptability and frequency of use that they are now almost a commonplace part of life for most people in the U.S. Clinical studies have demonstrated their effectiveness in terms of behavior and subjective experience.

However, there has been little physiological evidence to back up the wide range of positive experiences reported by both practitioners of MBSR-type activities and the mental health care providers who not only recommend them for their clients, but also swear by their efficacy. Until recently: in a study published in January 2015 in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital offered proof that meditation causes measurable changes in the human brain.

Magnetic Resonance Imagery (MRI) Shows Brain Growth In Key Areas

Researchers took magnetic resonance images of test subjects’ brains two weeks before and two weeks after they participated an eight-week course in MBSR techniques at The University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. For comparison, the researchers captured images of a control group of individuals who did not participate in the MBSR course. The individuals who took the MBSR course practiced about 30 minutes of mindfulness activities each day. Those in the control group did not practice any mindfulness activities at all. When the researchers compared the before and after images for each group, they found distinct and measurable differences in key brain areas.

Meditation:  Areas of Changes

  • Hippocampus: The hippocampus is located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain and is a major part of the limbic network, the part of the brain that is primarily responsible for emotional regulation. The hippocampus also plays a large role in the formation of memory and in cognitive functions like self-awareness, compassion and reflection. The group that participated in the MBSR course showed increased grey matter density in this area of the brain, while the control group showed no increase in grey matter density in this area.
  • Amygdala: Also part of the limbic network, the amygdala  participates in generating sensations of stress and anxiety. The group that participated in the MBSR course showed decreased grey matter density in this area of the brain, while the control group showed no such decrease.

For generations, brain researchers and the general public lived with the belief that after a certain point early in life, neurogenesis, or the formation of new brain cells, stopped. Research debunked this misconception in the late 1990s, first by identifying the formation of new brain cells in songbirds and finally by identifying the formation of new brain cells in adult humans in the early 2000s. This Harvard study proves definitively that mature humans can not only produce new brain cells, but also that the new brain cells can be produced in a relatively short amount of time—as little as eight weeks.

Implications for Adolescent Development

During adolescence, the brain develops at a rapid pace, but sometimes these changes fall behind and get overwhelmed and outstripped by the influx of hormonal changes that also occur at the same time. For adolescents, this combination of factors can sometimes lead to excessive risk-taking and making decisions on impulse rather than logical reflection. In previous research performed by the team at Massachusetts General Hospital, MBSR practices that occurred for more than eight weeks showed an increase grey matter density in areas of the brain associated with attention, emotional regulation and integration.

Combined with the new data that demonstrates how even short-term MBSR practices can initiate increased density in the brain areas associated with self-awareness and introspection and decreased density in areas related to stress and anxiety, this means that MBSR techniques for teenagers could be exactly what they need: a process by which they can learn to control their impulses and make decisions that are not ruled by hormone-driven impulsivity. This news lets parents, teachers, school administrators, therapists, and anyone involved in the life of a teenager know there’s a new tool in the toolbox – and there’s solid scientific data to back up its effectiveness.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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