Harvard Medical School, Meditation and the Brain

Harvard Medical School, Meditation and the Brain

Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist based out of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School gives an interview on his findings with meditation and its effects on the brain.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.   


Host Bob Macdonald: Dr. Davidson, what was the most striking thing you found when you studied the meditation experts the Tibetan Buddhist monks?

Richard Davidson: Probably the most striking thing was in terms of the scientific findings was the presence of these very high amplitude gamma oscillations that occurred in the meditation period when they were meditating, but also were very prominent in their so-called baseline state. And I should say that these are if you will professional meditators. These are people who have an average of about 34,000 hours of lifetime practice and listeners can go do the arithmetic at home. But that's a pretty big number.

BM:  What was going on in their brains that's different from what would be going on in say my brain?

RD:  One of the important characteristics of these long term meditators if you will is that the distinction between the state of meditation in their ordinary state if you will is blurred.

This is the what we think of as the transition from a state into a trait. That is, it becomes an enduring characteristic of their minds and brains, rather than something transient that occurs only when they practice meditation.

 

BM:  Dr. Lazar, you also studied long term meditators which your subjects were not monks. What did you find most interesting when you peered into their brains?

Dr. Sara Lazar:  Well we looked at brain structure and what we found is that there's several brain regions where there is more gray matter in the long term meditators compared to non-meditators. And as Dr. Davidson said that when you start meditating regularly that there is a shift that there's a blur between your meditation state and your everyday state.

And so we're interpreting these differences in gray matter to reflect that. That this is perhaps why and how you can get these shifts you're not meditation state looks more like your meditation state - the brain actually starts to rewire itself. And that's what we saw evidence for in these long term meditators.

Sara Lazar Ph.D. Asst. Professor Harvard Medical School

BM:  Where did you see that changes in the gray matter?

SL:  The most pronounced changes were in the insula. This is an area that's involved in integrating sensory experiences with cognitive thinking. And so you could think of that, sort of in a very loose hand-waving sort of way, as the mind body sort of area. We also found areas in the front of the brain which is an area involved in rational thinking and decision making.

BM:  Dr. Lazar, we hear a lot about enlightenment, if meditation really does work.  From a scientific point of view what is that possible do you see it?

SL:  I think it's important to make a distinction between people who meditate for 20, 30, 40 minutes a day for stress reduction and people who are really committed to obtaining enlightenment.  As Dr. Davidson pointed out, you could think of those monks as being professional meditators. And so I think that it really takes that sort of commitment -- full time commitment for many, many years -- in order to reach enlightenment.  For the average Joe who's just meditating for stress reduction that that's not really a realistic goal.

BM:  Dr. Davidson, you say that meditation could make people feel worse. What do you mean by that?

RD:  It can exacerbate depression, it can precipitate psychosis. It can do some harm. It's really important for an individual who may be predisposed and have a history of some psychiatric difficulty to engage in meditation practice under the guidance of a teacher who is both a mental health practitioner as well as a meditation teacher.

And often if a person I think is doing worse it could very well be because the nature of the instruction is not as attuned to where the person is as it might be.

BM:  Dr. Lazar, how do you feel about people going to a phone app for their guided meditations without a teacher present?

SL:  The apps are like a book or any other recording or any other things that have existed in the past. I think they're great as a supplement but I don't think anything compares to having a teacher that you can talk to about your experience.

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Meditation and Music May Help Reverse Early Memory Loss in Adults

Meditation and Music May Help Reverse Early Memory Loss in Adults

Summary: Researchers report practicing simple meditation and listening to music can have benefits for those with preclinical memory loss

Meditation and music improve memory and cognitive function in adults with subjective cognitive decline: A pilot randomized controlled trial.

Source: IOS PRESS.

In a recent study of adults with early memory loss, a West Virginia University research team lead by Dr. Kim Innes found that practice of a simple meditation or music listening program may have multiple benefits for older adults with preclinical memory loss.

In this randomized controlled trial, 60 older adults with subjective cognitive decline (SCD), a condition that may represent a preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s disease, were assigned to either a beginner meditation (Kirtan Kriya) or music listening program and asked to practice 12 minutes/day for 12 weeks. As detailed in a paper recently published by the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, both the meditation and music groups showed marked and significant improvements in subjective memory function and objective cognitive performance at 3 months. These included domains of cognitive functioning most likely to be affected in preclinical and early stages of dementia (e.g., attention, executive function, processing speed, and subjective memory function). The substantial gains observed in memory and cognition were maintained or further increased at 6 months (3 months post-intervention).

Both intervention groups also showed improvements in sleep, mood, stress, well-being and quality of life, with gains that were that were particularly pronounced in the meditation group; again, all benefits were sustained or further enhanced at 3 months post-intervention.. Image is for illustrative purposes only.

As explained in the research team’s previous paper, both intervention groups also showed improvements in sleep, mood, stress, well-being and quality of life, with gains that were that were particularly pronounced in the meditation group; again, all benefits were sustained or further enhanced at 3 months post-intervention.

The findings of this trial suggest that two simple mind-body practices, Kirtan Kriya meditation and music listening, may not only improve mood, sleep, and quality of life, but also boost cognition and help reverse perceived memory loss in older adults with Subjective Cognitive Decline.

ABOUT THIS PSYCHOLOGY RESEARCH ARTICLE

Source: Olivia Pape – IOS PRESS
Original Research: Abstract for “Meditation and Music Improve Memory and Cognitive Function in Adults with Subjective Cognitive Decline: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial” by Innes, Kim E.; Selfe, Terry Kit; Khalsa, Dharma Singh; and Kandati, Sahiti in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Published online January 17 2017 doi:10.3233/JAD-160867

 


Abstract

Meditation and Music Improve Memory and Cognitive Function in Adults with Subjective Cognitive Decline: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial

Background: While effective therapies for preventing or slowing cognitive decline in at-risk populations remain elusive, evidence suggests mind-body interventions may hold promise. Objectives: In this study, we assessed the effects of Kirtan Kriya meditation (KK) and music listening (ML) on cognitive outcomes in adults experiencing subjective cognitive decline (SCD), a strong predictor of Alzheimer’s disease.

Methods: Sixty participants with SCD were randomized to a KK or ML program and asked to practice 12 minutes/day for 3 months, then at their discretion for the ensuing 3 months. At baseline, 3 months, and 6 months we measured memory and cognitive functioning [Memory Functioning Questionnaire (MFQ), Trail-making Test (TMT-A/B), and Digit-Symbol Substitution Test (DSST)].

Results: The 6-month study was completed by 53 participants (88%). Participants performed an average of 93% (91% KK, 94% ML) of sessions in the first 3 months, and 71% (68% KK, 74% ML) during the 3-month, practice-optional, follow-up period. Both groups showed marked and significant improvements at 3 months in memory and cognitive performance (MFQ, DSST, TMT-A/B; p’s ≤0.04). At 6 months, overall gains were maintained or improved (p’s ≤ 0.006), with effect sizes ranging from medium (DSST, ML group) to large (DSST, KK group; TMT-A/B, MFQ). Changes were unrelated to treatment expectancies and did not differ by age, gender, baseline cognition scores, or other factors.

Conclusions: Findings of this preliminary randomized controlled trial suggest practice of meditation or ML can significantly enhance both subjective memory function and objective cognitive performance in adults with SCD, and may offer promise for improving outcomes in this population.

“Meditation and Music Improve Memory and Cognitive Function in Adults with Subjective Cognitive Decline: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial” by Innes, Kim E.; Selfe, Terry Kit; Khalsa, Dharma Singh; and Kandati, Sahiti in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Published online January 17 2017 doi:10.3233/JAD-160867

Erase Bad Memories and Enhance Good Ones with Manipulation of Specific Neurons

Erase Bad Memories and Enhance Good Ones with Manipulation of Specific Neurons

Stony Brook researchers discover a method to change emotionally charged memory patterns.

Imagine if memory could be tuned in such a way where good memories are enhanced for those suffering from dementia or bad memories are wiped away for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder. A Stony Brook University research team has taken a step toward the possibility of tuning the strength of memory by manipulating one of the brain’s natural mechanisms for signaling involved in memory, a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Their findings are published in the journal Neuron.

Brain mechanisms underlying memory are not well understood, but most scientists believe that the region of the brain most involved in emotional memory is the amygdala. Acetylcholine is delivered to the amygdala by cholinergic neurons that reside in the base of the brain. These same neurons appear to be affected early in cognitive decline. Previous research has suggested that cholinergic input to the amygdala appears to strengthen emotional memories.

“Memories of emotionally charged experiences are particularly strong, whether positive or negative experiences, and the goal of our research is to determine the mechanisms underlying the strengthening of memory,” said Lorna Role, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior and Co-Director of the Neurosciences Institute at Stony Brook Medicine.

In the paper, titled “Cholinergic Signaling Controls Conditioned Fear Behaviors and Enhances Plasticity of Cortical-Amygdala Circuits,” Dr. Role and colleagues used a fear-based memory model in mice to test the underlying mechanism of memory because fear is a strong and emotionally charged experience.

Brain mechanisms underlying memory are not well understood, but most scientists believe that the region of the brain most involved in emotional memory is the amygdala. Image is for illustrative purposes only.

The team used optogenetics, a newer research method using light to control cells in living tissue, to stimulate specific populations of cholinergic neurons during the experiments.

Two of the team’s findings stand out. First, when they increased acetylcholine release in the amygdala during the formation of a traumatic memory, it greatly strengthened memory making the memory last more than twice as long as normal. Then, when they decreased acetylcholine signaling in the amygdala during a traumatic experience, one that normally produces a fear response, they could actually wipe out memory.

“This second finding was particularly surprising, as we essentially created fearless mice by manipulating acetylcholine circuits in the brain,” explained Dr. Role. “The findings provide the basis for research examining novel approaches to reverse post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The challenge of continued research is that cholinergic neurons remain difficult to study because they are intermingled with other types of neurons and are few in number compared to other types of neurons in the brain.

Because acetylcholine is a natural signaling mechanism and seemingly essential for memory, additional research will center on non-pharmacologic ways to manipulate or fine-tune memory.

“The long-term goal of our research is that we would like to find ways – potentially independent of drug administration – to enhance or diminish the strength of specific memories, the good ones, and diminish the bad ones,” summarized Dr. Role.

ABOUT THIS MEMORY RESEARCH

The research involves faculty and students from the Stony Brook University Departments of Neurobiology and Behavior, and Pharmacological Sciences, as well as the CNS Disorders Center, the Neurosciences Institute, and the Program in Neurosciences. Co-authors include Li Jiang, Srikanya Kunda, James D. Lederman, Gretchen Y. Lopez-Hernandez, Elizabeth C. Ballinger, Shaohua Wang, and David A. Talmage.

Source: Gregory Filiano – Stony Brook University
Image Source: The image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Cholinergic Signaling Controls Conditioned Fear Behaviors and Enhances Plasticity of Cortical-Amygdala Circuits” by Li Jiang, Srikanya Kundu, James D. Lederman, Gretchen Y. López-Hernández, Elizabeth C. Ballinger, Shaohua Wang, David A. Talmage, Lorna W. Role in Neuron. Published online May 5 2016 doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2016.04.028


Abstract

Cholinergic Signaling Controls Conditioned Fear Behaviors and Enhances Plasticity of Cortical-Amygdala Circuits

Highlights
•Photostimulation of ACh in BLA during cue-fear training makes memory more durable
•Stimulating ACh input to BLA in vivo and ex vivo increases neuronal excitability
•Stimulating ACh input to BLA can elicit LTP
•All of the above effects are dependent on acetylcholine receptors (AChRs)

Summary

We examined the contribution of endogenous cholinergic signaling to the acquisition and extinction of fear- related memory by optogenetic regulation of cholinergic input to the basal lateral amygdala (BLA). Stimulation of cholinergic terminal fields within the BLA in awake-behaving mice during training in a cued fear-conditioning paradigm slowed the extinction of learned fear as assayed by multi-day retention of extinction learning. Inhibition of cholinergic activity during training reduced the acquisition of learned fear behaviors. Circuit mechanisms underlying the behavioral effects of cholinergic signaling in the BLA were assessed by in vivo and ex vivo electrophysiological recording. Photostimulation of endogenous cholinergic input (1) enhances firing of putative BLA principal neurons through activation of acetylcholine receptors (AChRs), (2) enhances glutamatergic synaptic transmission in the BLA, and (3) induces LTP of cortical-amygdala circuits. These studies support an essential role of cholinergic modulation of BLA circuits in the inscription and retention of fear memories.

“Cholinergic Signaling Controls Conditioned Fear Behaviors and Enhances Plasticity of Cortical-Amygdala Circuits” by Li Jiang, Srikanya Kundu, James D. Lederman, Gretchen Y. López-Hernández, Elizabeth C. Ballinger, Shaohua Wang, David A. Talmage, Lorna W. Role in Neuron. Published online May 5 2016 doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2016.04.028

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