Meditation: Push-ups for the brain?

Meditation has always been considered a “fringe” area of medicine. Although it has been around for thousands of years, it was never considered “high-tech”.

However, the development of new imaging technologies has finally given researchers the ability to ask some interesting questions about meditation and its effect on brain structure and cognitive performance.

When comparing brain wave patterns using old technologies like an EEG, it has been demonstrated that experienced meditators have higher levels of alpha waves (indicative of a relaxed brain) and lower levels of beta waves (indicative of focusing on intentional tasks or anxiety) during mediation (1). More recent imaging technology like the SPECT scan indicates that experienced meditators have improved cerebral blood flow (2). MRI technology has shown that experienced meditators have a greater density of grey matter in the brain (3), improved neural connections (4), and lower sensitivity to induced pain (5) when compared to matched control groups.

One of the problems with these types of studies has always been subject recruitment. The studies described above are simply various examples of case-control epidemiological studies. This type of study is often done in cancer epidemiology and is used to compare someone with cancer to a control without cancer to see if any differences are apparent (like if smoking is associated with lung cancer). The problem is that experienced meditators may already have different brain structures or improved neural networks and corresponding improved attention spans that attracted them to meditation in the first place. This is like comparing professional athletes to their fans watching them on TV and then looking for differences in fitness between the two groups.

Aware of these shortcomings, more recent, better controlled, shorter-term studies have taken either non-meditators or experienced meditators and put them into an intensive meditation program to be compared to equally matched subjects waiting to enter the same a program. Using a more tightly controlled group of subjects, it has been found that meditation does indeed have benefits in reducing sensitivity to pain (6), improving ability to modulate alpha waves that help reduce distractions (7), increasing brain grey matter (8), and increasing telomerase activity (9). The increased telomerase activity is usually associated with increased lifespan because when telomeres on the DNA become too short, the cell dies.

There are a lot of health benefits that stem from sitting in a comfortable chair thinking of nothing for at least 20 minutes a day. In fact, it is so easy that most people never get around to doing it.

So if you don’t have time to take at least 20 minutes a day to meditate, then consider taking high-dose fish oil. In as little as 35 days, you will see it also generates significant increases in the intensity of alpha waves, increased attention span, and improved mood (10) just like experienced meditators, who have spent years trying to reach the same goals. And if you maintain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in your blood for a longer period of time, it appears that you get decreased telomere shortening that should help you live longer (11). And if you are worried about time, taking adequate levels of fish oil to get these benefits only takes 15 seconds a day.

Of course, if you were really smart, you would do both every day.

References

  1. Lagopoulos J, Xu J, Rasmussen I, Vik A, Malhi GS, Eliassen CF, Arntsen IE, Saether JG, Hollup S, Holen A, Davanger S, and Ellingsen O. “Increased theta and alpha EEG activity during nondirective meditation.” J Alt Complementary Medicine 15: 1187-1192 (2009)
  2. Newberg A, Alavi A, Baime M, Pourdehnad M, Santanna J, and d’Aquili E. “The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during the complex cognitive task of meditation: a preliminary SPECT study.” Psychiatry Res 106: 113-122 (2001)
  3. Toga AW, Lepore N., Gaser C. The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. Neuroimage 45: 672-678 (2009)
  4. Luders E, Clark K, Narr KL, Toga AW. “Enhanced brain connectivity in long-term meditation practitioners [In Process Citation] Neuroimage 57: 1308-1316 (2011)
  5. Grant JA, Courtemanche J, Duerden EG, Duncan GH, and Rainville P. “Cortical thickness and pain sensitivity in zen meditators.” Emotion 10: 43-53 (2010)
  6. Zeidan F, Martucci KT, Kraft RA, Gordon NS, McHaffie JG, and Coghill RC. “Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation.” J Neuroscience 31: 5540-5548 (2011)
  7. Kerr CE, Jones SR, Wan Q, Pritchett DL, Wasserman RH, Wexler A, Villanueva JJ, Shaw JR, Lazar SW, Kaptchuk TJ, Littenberg R, Hamalainen MS, and Moore CI. “Effects of mindfulness meditation training on anticipatory alpha modulation in primary somatosensory cortex.” Brain Research Bulletin 85: 96-103 (2011)
  8. Holzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, and Lazar SW. “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density.” Psychiatry Research 191: 36-43 (2011)
  9. Jacobs TL, Epel ES, Lin J, Blackburn EH, Wolkowitz OM, Bridwell DA, Zanesco AP, Aichele SR, Sahdra BK, Maclean KA, King BG, Shaver PR, Rosenberg EL, Ferrer E,; Wallace BA, and Saron CD. “Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 36: 664-681 (2011)
  10. Fontani G, Corradeschi F, Felici A, Alfatti F, Migliorini S, and Lodi L. “Cognitive and physiological effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in healthy subjects.” Eur J Clin Invest 35: 691-
  11. Farzaneh-Far R, Lin J, Epel ES, Harris WS, Blackburn EH, and Whooley MA. “Association of marine omega-3 fatty acid levels with telomeric aging in patients with coronary heart disease.” JAMA 303: 250-257 (2010)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.