Neural mechanisms remain unclear (review)

Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16, 213–225. doi:10.1038/nrn3916. Abstract (including 180 references). Full text at lead author’s website.

Research over the past two decades broadly supports the claim that mindfulness meditation — practiced widely for the reduction of stress and promotion of health — exerts beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance. Recent neuroimaging studies have begun to uncover the brain areas and networks that mediate these positive effects.

However, the underlying neural mechanisms remain unclear, and it is apparent that more methodologically rigorous studies are required if we are to gain a full understanding of the neuronal and molecular bases of the changes in the brain that accompany mindfulness meditation.

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Improves cognitive performance and enhances emotional regulation

prefrnt_crtxGuglietti, C. L., et al. (2012). Meditation-related increases in GABA(B) modulated cortical inhibition. Brain Stimulation, online September. [Abstract]. 

Recent reports suggest meditation practice improves attentional performance and emotional regulation. The process of meditation apparently increases activation in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and stimulates the reticular nucleus of the thalamus, implicating the production and delivery of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABAergic inhibitory interneurons have a central role in cortical inhibition (CI), modulating cortical excitability and neural plasticity.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive method of examining CI, was used to evaluate changes before and after a 60 min meditation session. Seventy right-handed healthy subjects (n = 35 meditators, n = 35 non-meditators) were assessed.

Findings indicate meditation processes are linked to GABAergic cortical inhibition, a mechanism previously implicated in improved cognitive performance and enhanced emotional regulation.