Can mindfulness help preserve grey matter in Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson's: Man on a park bench with autumn trees
A study suggests mindfulness could increase grey matter density in areas of the brain affected by Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s. It affects 7 million people around the world, including one million people in the US and about 127,000 in the UK. The condition is caused by the death of nerve cells in the brain that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, and its physical symptoms include tremor, rigidity and slowness of movement. There are also psychological effects, especially anxiety and depression.

You would expect mindfulness-based interventions to alleviate the psychological symptoms of Parkinson’s – mindfulness has proved its worth at reducing both anxiety and depression – but a recent study suggests mindfulness training could also address some of the physical changes in the brain. An eight-week course of mindfulness training seemed to increase the density of grey matter in two areas of the brain associated with the disease.

Fourteen patients took a standard eight-week mindfulness course, while 13 others continued with their normal treatment and acted as controls. MRI scans of their brains before and after showed increased grey matter density in the right amygdala and hippocampus of those who had received mindfulness training. These areas of the brain are known to be damaged in Parkinson’s patients who develop dementia.

So it seems mindfulness training could combat some of the neurodegenerative effects of Parkinson’s.

It’s a big “could”. As the authors say, this is probably the first study to investigate the effects of mindfulness on the brains of people with Parkinson’s (in fact, they’re so excited about it they appear to have published their results twice, the first time in February in the journal Neurology, the second earlier this month in Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery).

Fluke results are surprisingly common in neuroscience studies because they often involve small numbers of subjects, meaning they have low “statistical power”. There’s a high likelihood of seeing something that isn’t really there, or missing something that really is there. When the imaging technique MRI is used to look for structural changes in the brain associated with mental health conditions, as many as nine out of ten studies may be worthless.

Other researchers will need to repeat this study to discover whether or not its findings are a statistical mirage.

In science, it’s usually a case of three steps forward and two steps back. Sometimes it’s three steps forward and three steps back. Fortunately for people with Parkinson’s who might be considering mindfulness therapy, its positive effects on psychological wellbeing have already been established.

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