Three separate studies conducted on adults with mild cognitive impairment, migraines and anxiety showed significant improvements when they meditated over receiving standard care for their symptoms, according to a press release from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, N.C.
The first two studies, conducted by Rebecca Erwin Wells, MD, MPH, assistant professor of neurology at Wake Forest, looked at the effectiveness of a meditation and yoga program called mindfulness-based stress reduction as therapy for mild cognitive impairment and migraine headaches.
Adults between ages 55 and 90 with mild cognitive impairment were part of the first study. Results showed that 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 over patients who received conventional care, according to the press release.
Findings indicate meditation may slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease, they said.
Wells’ second study found that adults with migraines who practiced MBSR for eight weeks had shorter and less debilitating migraines over those in a control group receiving standard care. The MBSR group had 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,” Wells said in a news release. “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.”
A third study conducted by Fadel Zeidan, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest, is probing meditation’s effects and capabilities on anxiety, according to the release.
Zeidan showed that as little as three 20-minute training sessions in mindfulness meditation can reduce pain and everyday anxiety in healthy individuals with no previous meditation experience. He identified specific brain mechanisms through imaging that captures longer-duration brain processes more effectively than MRI scans.
Participants in his study had sections of their skin heated to 120 degrees and then rated the pain they felt while meditating. Pain was rated as 40% less intense and 57% less unpleasant when they rested with their eyes closed, the study stated. Brain imaging showed decreased neural activity in the area of the brain responsible for feeling pain location and intensity, and increased activity in the brain regions associated with attention and regulation of emotions.
Subjects with anxiety who meditated reported decreases up to 39% after practicing meditation, and Zeidan noted their brain scans showed increased activity in areas of the cortex associated with regulating thinking, emotions and worry.
“In these studies we’ve been able to get a better sense of the brain regions associated with reducing pain and anxiety during meditation,” Zeidan said in the release. “Basically, by having people meditate while their brains are being scanned we’ve been able to objectively verify what people like Buddhist monks have been reporting about meditation for thousands of years.”