February 1st, 2012

Meditation linked to improved cognitive control

When Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and medical director at the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic began meditating 13 years ago, he hoped to achieve a sense of calm and become “less of a jerk.” What he didn’t expect was that this practice would lead to greater cognitive control and theoretical links to conditions like attention deficit hyperactive disorder, autism and Alzheimer’s disease.

According to Brewer, lead researcher on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, during meditation certain regions of the brain are deactivated, specifically the “default mode network,” which deals with “self referential processing.” He explains that these areas are related to a number of cognitive disorders.

Brewer did not intentionally apply his study to autism and other neurological conditions, but functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) indicated increased density in cortical density in parts of the brain associated with attention and emotion. During the study, subjects manifested an activated “task positive network” while meditating. This area of the brain is responsible for cognitive control. Brewer notes that the “task is not to be concerned with self,” but to become more mindful in general.

Brewer points out that most people don’t notice how much the mind jumps from one thought to another, a condition he calls “monkey mind.” He says that regular meditation induces a pleasant sensation and reduces the “restless vibe,” enhancing awareness and mindfulness.

Robert M. DuWors, Ph.D., neuroscientist and neuropsychologist in Vermont, Rhode Island and Massachusetts who is also an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, was so impressed with the research on meditation, he underwent the eight-week mindfulness program at UMass Medical School to become certified in the technique. He reasons that having this certification enables him to more adequately treat homeless and early recovery patients who come to his mental health clinic on Cape Cod. “These two groups traditionally do not respond well to talk therapy. I was looking at developing a treatment intervention to enhance potential and increase insight [for patients] to allow more self-observation and understanding and to better be able to make choices,” he says.

DuWors reiterates the effectiveness of meditation for those with difficulty controlling behavior. He explains that attentional measures are subsumed under executive functioning, which is located in the prefrontal lobes. “We are finding that meditation is helpful with ADHD. People become less instantly reactive. It’s a way to get more in touch with triggers. And preliminary data shows less relapse in ADHD patients,” says DuWors. “This therapy might be better for those with impulse control, including substance abusers and those with violent tendencies. Meditation makes a connection between the brain or mind and the body. It’s a great way to jumpstart and nurture the concept of observing ego.”

Brewer has submitted a grant to conduct prospective studies that look at whether the regions of the brain change over time. “If we can teach novices to meditate using real-time feedback, we’ll get a sense of whether they are deactivating regions of the brain or not,” he says. “We’ve already seen remarkable anecdotal results with novices in just nine minutes.”

By Phyllis Hanlon

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