Monday, November 21, 2011

How brains benefit from meditation


Experienced meditators seem to be able switch off areas of the brain associated with daydreaming as well as psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, according to a new brain imaging study by Yale researchers.

Meditation's ability to help people stay focused on the moment has been associated with increased happiness levels, said Judson A. Brewer, assistant professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study published the week of Nov. 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Understanding how meditation works will aid investigation into a host of diseases, he said.

"Meditation has been shown to help in variety of health problems, such as helping people quit smoking, cope with cancer, and even prevent psoriasis," Brewer said.

The Yale team conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on both experienced and novice meditators as they practiced three different meditation techniques.

They found that experienced meditators had decreased activity in areas of the brain called the default mode network, which has been implicated in lapses of attention and disorders such as anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and even the buildup of beta amyloid plaques in Alzheimer's disease. The decrease in activity in this network, consisting of the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex, was seen in experienced meditators regardless of the type of meditation they were doing.

The scans also showed that when the default mode network was active, brain regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control were co-activated in experienced meditators but not novices. This may indicate that meditators are constantly monitoring and suppressing the emergence of "me" thoughts, or mind-wandering. In pathological forms, these states are associated with diseases such as autism and schizophrenia.

The meditators did this both during meditation, and also when just resting — not being told to do anything in particular. This may indicate that meditators have developed a "new" default mode in which there is more present-centered awareness, and less "self"-centered, say the researchers.

"Meditation's ability to help people stay in the moment has been part of philosophical and contemplative practices for thousands of years," Brewer said. "Conversely, the hallmarks of many forms of mental illness is a preoccupation with one's own thoughts, a condition meditation seems to affect. This gives us some nice cues as to the neural mechanisms of how it might be working clinically."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Transcendental Meditation effective antidote to record stress levels in school students


With record levels of student stress reported in a recent UCLA survey, can a simple stress-reducing meditation technique be a viable solution?

A new study published in the Journal of Instructional Psychology found the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique significantly decreased psychological distress in public school students. The study, conducted with at-risk minority secondary school students, showed a 36 percent reduction in overall psychological distress. Significant decreases were also found in trait anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Rising Stress Levels Affect Emotional and Physical Health

The percentage of students in the UCLA survey reporting good or above-average high school emotional health dropped from 55.3 percent in 2009 to 51.9 percent in 2010. This marks the lowest level within the past 25 years.

Dr. Charles Elder, MD, lead author of the TM study, and investigator at Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, emphasized the important implications of the findings on reduced stress. "It is vital that we start addressing the high levels of emotional stress being reported by high school and college students. Decreased stress can have a positive impact on mental health, and can also reduce the risk for hypertension, obesity, and diabetes—major risk factors for heart disease," explained Dr. Elder.

Educational research has also linked student stress to negative school behavior and poor academic performance.

Promising Findings for Education

"These new findings on reduced stress, along with the recent research on academic achievement gains, hold tremendous promise for public education," said Sanford Nidich, EdD, principal investigator, and professor of education at Maharishi University of Management. "There is a growing body of evidence showing Transcendental Meditation to be an easy to implement, value-added educational program that promotes emotional health and increases academic achievement in at-risk students," said Dr. Nidich.

A total of 106 secondary school students, 87% racial and ethnic minorities, took part in the study. Results showed that over a four-month period, students practicing Transcendental Meditation as part of their schools' Quiet Time program exhibited significant reductions in psychological distress factors compared to controls.

According to James Dierke, 2008 National Association of Secondary School Principals—National Middle School Principal of the Year, "Stress is the number one enemy of public education, especially in inner-city schools. It creates tension, violence, and compromises the cognitive and psychological capacity of students to learn and grow. The TM/Quiet Time program is the most powerful, effective program I have come across in my 39 years as a public school educator for addressing this problem. It is nourishing children and providing them an immensely valuable tool for life. It is saving lives."

Study Facts

• This study evaluated change in psychological distress factors in students practicing the Transcendental Meditation program compared to non-meditating controls. A total of 106 students (68 meditating and 38 non-meditating students), took part in the study. The study included students from four public secondary schools.
• Eighty-seven percent were racial and ethnic minority students, including 26% Hispanic, 25% African American, and 19% American Indian.
• The Transcendental Meditation program was practiced in class twice a day as part of the schools' Quiet Time program for four months prior to posttesting.
• The Transcendental Meditation program was taught in the context of school-wide Quiet Time programs in which students voluntarily chose the Quiet Time program in which they wanted to participate.
• Transcendental Meditation is a simple, natural, effortless technique that allows the mind to settle down and experience a silent yet awake state of awareness, a state of "restful alertness." Practice of this stress-reduction program does not involve any change in beliefs, values, religion, or lifestyle.
• Compared to eyes-closed rest, research has found that Transcendental Meditation practice is characterized by decreased activation or arousal of the autonomic nervous system, as reflected in decreased breath rate and lower sympathetic nervous system activity. The Transcendental Meditation program has been shown to increase electroencephalographic (EEG) brain integration and coherence, especially in the frontal area of the brain, responsible for higher-order processing.
• Other published research on high school and college students has shown reduced psychological distress, improved positive coping ability, decreased blood pressure, reduced cardiovascular reactivity to stressful stimuli, reduced absenteeism, and decreased school suspensions.
• Results of the current study indicated significant reductions in overall psychological distress (p=.010) and trait anxiety (p=.035) compared to controls. Within-in group differences in depressive symptoms were found for meditating students (p=.003).

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Acupuncture can prevent radiation-induced chronic dry mouth


When given alongside radiation therapy for head and neck cancer, acupuncture has shown for the first time to reduce the debilitating side effect of xerostomia, according to new research from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center.

The study, published in the journal Cancer, reported findings from the first randomized controlled trial of acupuncture for the prevention of xerostomia.

Xerostomia, or severe dry mouth, is characterized by reduced salivary flow, which commonly affects patients receiving radiotherapy for head and neck cancer. Most current treatments are palliative and offer limited benefit, according to Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor in MD Anderson's Departments of General Oncology and Behavioral Science and director of the Integrative Medicine Program.

The condition impairs quality of life for patients, as it creates difficulties eating, speaking and sleeping, while also increasing the risk for oral infections.

"There have been a number of small studies examining the benefits of acupuncture after xerostomia develops, but no one previously examined if it could prevent xerostomia," said Cohen, who is also the study's principal investigator. "We found incorporating acupuncture alongside radiotherapy diminished the incidence and severity of this side effect."

Cohen and his colleagues examined 86 patients with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, treated at Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center. Forty patients were randomized to acupuncture and 46 to the standard of care. Those in the treatment arm received acupuncture therapy three times per week during the seven-week course of radiotherapy. Patients were evaluated before radiotherapy, weekly during radiotherapy, and then again one and six months later.

The results were based on data derived from two self-report questionnaires and measuring actual saliva flow. Patients completed the Xerostomia Questionnaire (XQ), an eight-item survey which assessed symptoms consistent with the condition. XQ scores under 30 corresponded to mild or no symptoms of xerostomia.

The second measure, MD Anderson Symptom Inventory Head and Neck (MDASI-HN), ranked the severity of cancer-related symptoms, other than xerostomia, and their interference with quality of life. The team also measured saliva flow rates using standardized sialometry collection techniques.

Benefits Noticed Quickly

"What was quite remarkable was that we started to see group differences as early as three weeks into radiotherapy for the development of xerostomia, cancer-related symptoms that interfere with quality of life, and saliva flow rates - an important objective measure," said Zhiqiang Meng, M.D., Ph.D., co-principle investigator of the study and deputy chair of the Department of Integrative Oncology, Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center.

The largest group differences in XQ scores were seen by the end of radiotherapy, but the differences persisted over time. By one month after the end of radiotherapy, 54.3 percent of the acupuncture group reported XQ scores greater than 30, compared to the control group at 86.1 percent. By six months after radiotherapy, the numbers dropped to 24.1 percent in the acupuncture group and 63.6 percent of the control group still reporting symptoms of xerostomia. Saliva flow rates were also greater in the acupuncture group, starting at three weeks into radiotherapy and persisting through the one and six month follow-up.

Acupuncture also helped cancer-related symptoms, other than xerostomia, as measured by the MDASI-HN questionnaire, with differences that emerged in week three and continued through six months.

"The medical implications are quite profound in terms of quality of life, because while chronic dry mouth may sound benign, it has a significant impact on sleeping, eating and speaking," Cohen said. "Without saliva, there can be an increase in microbial growth, possible bone infection and irreversible nutritional deficits."

Additional studies are needed to determine the mechanisms for the benefits of acupuncture, and while the study didn't examine this issue, Cohen said it may have an impact on local blood flux, specifically at the parotid gland.

Further research is planned, including a large trial conducted at MD Anderson in collaboration with Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center. Both centers will enroll 150 patients undergoing radiotherapy for head and neck cancer: 50 will receive acupuncture, 50 sham acupuncture and 50 will be enrolled in a control group. Researchers will also examine saliva constituents and a number of other measures to better determine the mechanisms of acupuncture.