How Mindfulness May Change the Brain in Depressed Patients

I’ve seen the benefits of Mindfulness practice in my own life and in the lives of my clients for many years. Scientific studies continue to affirm the benefits with an increasing frequency of studies and an expanding set of tools.

As Alvin Powell describes in his recent article in Mindful magazine,

The number of randomized controlled trials — the gold standard for clinical study — involving mindfulness has jumped from one in the period from 19951997 to 11 from 20042006, to a whopping 216 from 20132015.
randomized controlled trials

Rising scientific interest in the benefits of mindfulness practice

The tools used to study the effects of mindfulness also continue to increase. For example,  Harvard researchers are using brain scans to explore how 8-weeks of training in present-moment awareness might break the cycle of self-rumination. Findings from this research may add to growing evidence that mindfulness can help sufferers of depression, chronic pain, and anxiety.

Researchers are quick to note that well-designed, well-run studies confirm mindfulness effects similar to other existing treatments, but not necessarily better results than existing treatments. Why, then, is there so much interest in mindfulness? As  Benjamin Shapero, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s (MGH) Depression Clinical and Research Program explains, “Many people don’t respond to the frontline interventions.  Individual cognitive behavioral therapy is helpful for many people; antidepressant medications help many people. But it’s also the case that many people don’t benefit from them as well. There’s a great need for alternative approaches.”

To better understand how mindfulness works in the brain, Shapero and his colleague Gaëlle Desbordes, are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which not only takes pictures of the brain, as a regular MRI does, but also records brain activity occurring during the scan. They are studying clinically depressed patients, performing functional magnetic resonance imaging scans before and after an eight-week course in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT.

During the scans, participants complete two tests, one that encourages them to become more aware of their bodies by focusing on their heartbeats (an exercise related to mindfulness meditation), and the other asking them to reflect on phrases common in the self-chatter of depressed patients, such as “I am such a loser,” or “I can’t go on.” After a series of such comments, the participants are asked to stop ruminating on the phrases and the thoughts they trigger. Researchers will measure how quickly subjects can disengage from negative thoughts, typically a difficult task for the depressed.

I encourage you to read Powell’s complete article and to check back for the results of these ongoing studies.

With so much public interest in Mindfulness and increased activity in the scientific community, I predict that we will soon have a much greater understanding not only of how Mindfulness benefits us, but also how it works, and for which problems it is most effective.

Mindfully yours,

Dr. Pamm