Tag: Health

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…)

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…)

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…)

Cigarettes and cupcakes: mindfulness meditation reduces craving

Delicious cupcakes
Resistance is useless: it just makes the craving worse

Life is so unfair. Trying to give up something you’re addicted to just makes you crave that thing even more, whether it’s cigarettes, alcohol or sugar. You’re caught in a Catch-22: you want to quit, but the more you try, the harder it gets to resist temptation. Perhaps the key is not to try so damn hard, but instead improve your brain’s capacity for self-control.

It might just work… (more…)

Mindfulness monthly: bipolar disorder, time perception, older people, and eating disorders

A Buddhist monks blesses tourists on a beach in ThailandEvery month I’m going to round up the latest research about the potential applications of mindfulness. I’ll pick out only four or five nuggets (writing in detail about one, and writing a very brief summary of the others) but link to the awesome Mindfulness Research Monthly newsletter, which provides a much more comprehensive review of the field than I could ever do. (more…)