Do clients tell you they feel tense a lot of the time? Mindfulness meditation practice leads to structural changes in a region of the brain related to experiencing stress, according
to a study reported in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging (2011; 191, 36-43).

“Practitioners have long claimed that meditation . . . provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” said senior study author Sara Lazar, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, in a Harvard Gazette article. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

A team led by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital,
in Boston, wanted to identify specific changes in the brain’s anatomy that could be attributed to participation in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training. Investigators recruited study participants from those who expressed interest in lowering their stress levels. Sixteen healthy adults without meditation experience completed
an 8-week MBSR program; 17 healthy adults enrolled in a wait-list control group.

All subjects underwent magnetic resonance imaging of the brain before and after the 8-week program period. MBSR participants spent an average of 27 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises and attended weekly meetings to learn about the nature and consequences of stress, develop mindfulness skills and do some gentle, mindful yoga in an interactive social setting. Control group members continued their usual routines.

Data analysis showed increased concentrations of gray matter in the brain in the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporoparietal junction and the cerebellum of those who had experienced the MBSR training. Control group members did not exhibit any of these changes. Study authors noted that the affected regions of the brain are involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, self-referential processing and perspective taking. More research was recommended.