Carnegie Mellon researcher finds meditation trains brain

Julia Napolitano Feb 14, 2016

Everyone gets stressed, and we all deal with our stress in different ways — meditation, exercise, or eating chocolate, to name a few examples. But new research out of Carnegie Mellon’s psychology department shows that mindfulness meditation, a state of focusing on the present and interacting nonjudgementally with thoughts, may physically change your brain and help you feel better.

Mindfulness meditation is a form of focus exercise that can take many forms, but a common one involves sitting upright with closed eyes and focusing on breathing. When the mind wanders, one passively acknowledges thoughts and returns to focus on breathing. The idea is to focus on the present moment instead of thinking about the past or the future.

Over the past few decades, research into mindfulness meditation has shown that it helps improve a broad range of stress-related physical health, disease, and psychiatric outcomes, such as depression and anxiety, but little is known about the neurobiological mechanisms behind these positive health outcomes.

A new study published in Biological Psychiatry and led by David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, shows that mindfulness meditation reduces interleukin-6, a biomarker of systemic inflammation, in high-stress, unemployed adults more so than simple relaxation techniques.

“Not only did we show that mindfulness meditation training could reduce a health biomarker of inflammation, but we also showed what mindfulness training-related brain changes drove these beneficial health effects,” Creswell said.

For the study, the research team randomly selected 35 stressed adults who were seeking employment. Half of the subjects underwent an intensive three-day mindfulness meditation retreat program, while the other half underwent a relaxation retreat program. Both before and after the retreat programs, five-minute resting brain scans of the subjects were taken. Blood samples were taken before the retreat program and at a four-month follow-up appointment.

At this four-month follow up, it was noted by the researchers that those who underwent mindfulness meditation training showed reduced circulating levels of interleukin-6 as compared to those who experienced relaxation training.

“This finding suggests that mindfulness meditation training may decrease biomarkers of inflammatory disease risk in populations who have elevated inflammation (such as stressed unemployed adults),” the study concludes. “Little is known about how behavioral interventions, such as mindfulness meditation training, can impact the brain and physical health. We provide the first well-controlled evidence that three days of mindfulness meditation training increases resting state functional connectivity of the default mode network with neural regions important in executive control (left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), and that these resting state functional connectivity changes statistically mediate improvements in circulating levels of IL-6 at follow-up.”

Ultimately, mindfulness meditation provides physical benefits along with the psychological ones.

“Mindfulness meditation is about paying attention to your experience, and I think it helped these stressed out unemployed folks in our study by helping them notice how they were reacting to stresses,” Creswell said. “With mindfulness training, they could take a step back and begin to change ineffective reactivity patterns to more effective responses to life stressors.”

So next time you’re feeling stressed, take a few minutes and focus on breathing, on nothing else but the present. It’s easier said than done, but practicing mindfulness meditation may change your outlook on how to approach stressful situations.