Alterations in the structure of the brain — review & implications

Fox, Kieran C. R., & Rael B. Cahn. (2018). “Meditation and the brain in health and disease.” Forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Meditation, Farias, Brazier, & Lalljee, Eds. Full text.

The aim of this chapter is to provide an accessible introduction to the neuroscience of meditation. First, we review studies examining the relationship between meditation and alterations in the structure of the brain’s grey and white matter (so-called morphometric neuroimaging).

Next, we discuss findings from functional neuroimaging methods, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, and what they have taught us about the brain’s patterns of activity during different forms of meditation, how meditation alters the brain’s response to various tasks and experiences, and how the expertise of long-term meditators might be harnessed to help us explore subtle aspects of human cognition.

Third, we review electrophysiological methods of measuring brain activity during meditation, such as electroencephalography (EEG), and how these findings relate to what we have learned from morphometric and functional neuroimaging.

Finally, we discuss the implications of this research and of meditation more generally for brain health and psychological well-being. Specifically, we focus on how meditation might ameliorate the deficits related to cognitive aging, as well as help ameliorate the symptoms and underlying neural substrates associated with neurodegenerative and psychiatric disease.

Physical impairment and pychological well-being in people with ALS

Pagnini, F., et al. (2014). Mindfulness, Physical Impairment and Psychological Well-Being in People with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Psychology & Health, (just-accepted), 1-27.

Abstract. Mindfulness is the process of actively making new distinctions, rather than relying on habitual or automatic categorizations from the past. Mindfulness has been positively associated with physical well-being, better recovery rates from disease or infections, pain reduction and overall quality of life.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a rare, progressive and fatal neurodegenerative disease, clinically characterized by progressively increasing weakness leading to death, usually within five years. There is presently no cure for ALS, and it is considered one of the most genetically and biologically-driven illnesses. Thus far, the aims of psychological studies on ALS have focused on understanding patient – and, to a lesser extent, caregiver – quality of life and psychological well-being. No previous study has investigated the influence of psychological factors on ALS.

A sample of 197 subjects with ALS were recruited and assessed online twice, with a duration of four months between the two assessments. Assessment included measurements of trait mindfulness, physical impairment, quality of life, anxiety, and depression. The influence of mindfulness as predictor of changes in physical impairments was evaluated with a mixed-effects model.

Mindfulness positively influenced the change of physical symptoms. Subjects with higher mindfulness experienced a slower progression of the disease after 4 months. Moreover, mindfulness at first assessment predicted higher quality of life and psychological well-being.

The available data indicate that a psychological construct – mindfulness – can attenuate the progress of a disease that is believed to be almost solely biologically-driven. The potential implications of these results extend well beyond ALS.