Researchers Probing Potential Power of Meditation as Therapy

Posted on April 9, 2015

When Rebecca Erwin was a varsity rower at the University of North Carolina, the coach had the team's members take a yoga and meditation class.

It had an impact.

"My teammates and I noticed that yoga and meditation improved our flexibility and focus, but also made us feel better, not just when we were rowing but in our everyday lives," she recalled. "I wondered if yoga and meditation really have scientific benefits, especially if they have specific effects on the brain, and if so, how that works."

"We're coming to recognize that meditation changes people's brains," said Wells, an assistant professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. "And we're just beginning to gain understanding of what those changes mean and how they might benefit the meditator."

In separate clinical studies, Wells has looked into the effectiveness of a meditation and yoga program called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) as a therapy for mild cognitive impairment – problems with memory or other faculties without yet having dementia – and for migraine headaches.

In the first study, the participants were adults between 55 and 90 with mild cognitive impairment. Those who practiced MBSR for eight weeks had significantly improved functional connectivity in the brain's network that is active during introspective thought such as retrieving memories, along with trends of less atrophy in the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for emotions, learning and memory) compared with the participants who received conventional care. These findings indicate that meditation may positively affect the areas of the brain most impacted by Alzheimer's and thus may be capable of slowing the progress of the disease.

Wells' second study found that adults with migraines who practiced MBSR for eight weeks had shorter and less debilitating migraines than those in the control group who received standard medical care. The members of the MBSR group also had trends of less frequent and less severe attacks, and reported having a greater sense of self-control over their migraines.

"Both of these were pilot studies with small subject groups and additional research is needed, but I'm still very excited by the findings," said Wells, who began both studies while completing fellowships at Harvard Medical School. "This type of meditation is a safe and relatively simple intervention, and if it can delay cognitive decline and help relieve migraines, it could contribute to improved quality of life for many of these individuals."


Source material from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center

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