Is this the brain’s mindfulness switch?

Thalamus small.gif

Journalists adore research that allows them to write stories along the lines of “scientists have tracked down the brain’s love HQ” or “researchers have located the brain’s god spot”. It is very satisfying to imagine that we can divide the brain into neat components with distinct functions like the parts of a car engine. We dream that one day, neuroscientists will be able to lift the bonnet (or the hood if it’s an American brain), point and say “here’s the valve that causes schizophrenia – we can readjust that with this chemical spanner. Here’s the tank that causes OCD when it overflows – we can drain that by turning this tap here. Over there are the spark plugs that we clean up to cure depression …”

Unfortunately the brain is a lot messier and more wonderful than your average motor engine, which is why we’re still standing over it scratching our heads trying to figure out how on earth it all works. It’s a tangle of connections, with myriad networks of components involved in creating thoughts, consciousness, sensations and emotions.

So it is with a mixture of excitement and wariness that I approach a study by researchers at Beijing Normal University in China that seems to point to a particular part of the brain that switches mindfulness on and off. It’s called the thalamus (shown in red on the animated gif), a pair of bulbous structures that sit at the top of the brainstem (yellow) on the midline of the brain. The thalamus plays a pivotal role as the brain’s switchboard, relaying information from all the senses apart from smell to the cerebral cortex, which is the thinking, conscious part of the brain. (more…)

Mindful cycling: staying alert, staying alive

A representation of the Dharmachakra or Buddhist eight-spoked wheel
The Dharmachakra or Buddhist eight-spoked wheel, representing the Noble Eightfold Path, from the Konârak Sun temple in Odisha, India. One of the spokes of this bicycle-like wheel is for mindfulness. Photograph: Saamiblog/Flickr

Mindfulness training courses and books will usually recommend everyday activities such as taking a shower or doing the washing-up as opportunities to exercise your powers of concentration. The idea is that by focusing on these simple, routine tasks – paying attention to what your body is doing and what your senses are telling you – you can calm the wayward thoughts that for the rest of the day chase each other through the corridors of your mind like overexcited children.

Humdrum activities that don’t require much brainpower, such as washing the dishes and showering, are perfectly good ways to practise your mind-taming skills, but their very ordinariness can make them a challenge. It’s a struggle to stay focused.

I know, that’s the idea – to be mindful even of the mundane – but for a novice like me, how much easier it would be to apply mindfulness to an everyday task that involves a more stimulating visual scene, loud noises, physical exertion and the ever present threat of injury? (more…)

Growing old stressfully: chronic stress and prematurely aged cells

Human chromosomes showing telomeres
Human chromosomes (grey) capped by telomeres (white), the structures that prevent damage to DNA with repeated cell divisions. Photograph: public domain

Forty years ago, the Whitehall Study of men working for Britain’s Civil Service famously revealed that those at the bottom of the pecking order were much more likely to die prematurely than those at the top – regardless of other risk factors such as smoking. They had higher mortality rates from all causes, but especially heart disease.

So the lowly paid doorman, whether or not he was a heavy smoker, was more likely to drop dead than the clerk sitting at his desk all day earning more money. As ever, life was deeply unfair. But what was the biological explanation for this health inequality? One theory was that the stress and lack of control over their working lives experienced by men in lowlier jobs were putting their health at risk, though how that worked physiologically was anyone’s guess. (more…)

Meditation or medication for depression? A reality check

Prozac (fluoxetine) antidepressant pills
Research has suggested meditation is as effective as taking an antidepressant for mild depression

There was good news last week about the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for easing anxiety, depression and pain. Mail Online reported that a study had found “meditation ‘works just as well as anti-depressants’: half an hour a day offers as much relief as tablets”, while The Boston Globe said those who took mindfulness classes experienced improvement in mood after eight weeks “on par with the effect seen with prescription medications”.

This was all perfectly true. A review published in JAMA Internal Medicine had looked at all the best studies to date and concluded that there was “moderate evidence” of improved anxiety, depression and pain among patients. The effect on mild depression was indeed equal to that achieved with anti-depressants.

Like me, though, you may be a bit underwhelmed by that phrase “moderate evidence”. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but better than “low evidence” – which was what the reviewers concluded about the efficacy of meditation for improving stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life. (more…)

Meditation for pain relief

Candle and Buddha
Pain is relieved by suppressing the “mental narratives” and “self-related processes” that usually exacerbate it

Pain is a fact of life: it can be dulled with drugs, but sometimes it’s just too intense or too persistent. Then we have to learn to live with it.

Buddhist monks are adept at doing this when they sit immobile in meditation, remaining straight-backed in the lotus position for hours on end. They are thought to achieve this by “uncoupling” the sensation of pain from their emotional reaction to it. This is more than just a parlour trick. Monks protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet have shown they are capable of sitting unflinching as they burn to death. (more…)

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. (more…)