Neuroscience of Yoga

By: Berrak Ugur

Perseverance. It is a word that I had to deeply internalize during my graduate studies.  It is repeated over and over starting with your graduate school applications and continued throughout your training. But how do we manage to stay in power when everything seems like it’s falling apart? And more importantly, how do we make sure that our whole world does not burst into flames when one tiny little thing goes wrong? How do we deal with the fluctuations of mind that seem to go into places that are not always made of rainbows and unicorns? Especially in the beginning of my graduate research, I struggled a lot with these thoughts. Sometimes, it can be challenging to acknowledge a thought without letting it become a constant worry. In order to take my mind off of failed experiments and worries about the future, I tried many physical and mental activities. Among these, yoga has helped me a lot to become a better researcher. I started practicing yoga a couple of years ago and now it has become a fundamental part of my life; along the way, I became a yoga teacher. Through the practice, I am able to acknowledge a thought and then let it go and focus on my work.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says ‘yogaś-citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ,’ which translates as ‘yoga is the cessation (nirodhah) of fluctuations (vrtti) of the mind (citta).’ I do not know or understand how practicing yoga changes my mindset and that is totally fine. Nevertheless, I wanted to see if there were any studies performed to document if practicing yoga actually changes neuronal communication.

I turned to Pubmed and came across a nature neuroscience review titled ‘The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation’ (Tang, Hölzel and Posner, 2015), which is a good summary of the current state of the field. This review summarizes a handful of current studies, mostly focused on brain imaging. According to the review, initial studies on meditation were cross-sectional, meaning that they compared a larger group of meditators (e.g.~100 monks) to completely unrelated group of non-meditators and observed differences in their brain morphology. However, the authors make a very important point that “although these differences may constitute training-induced effects, […] it is possible that there are pre-existing differences in the brains of meditators, which might be linked to their interest in meditation, personality or temperament.” In other words, perhaps the brains of those inclined to meditate were different even before they started meditating. On the other hand, longitudinal studies that are performed at multiple time points with more directly comparable control subjects offer a better understanding of how brain morphology/function is altered through meditation.

The part of the review that surprised me most was about studies that document increase in volume and density of grey matter (the part of central nervous system that contains majority of the neuronal cell bodies) in people who mediate compared to non-meditators. One study, performed by Sarah Lazar in 2005, shows that the thickness of cortical regions related to somatosensory, auditory, visual and interoceptive processing correlates with meditation experience (Lazar et al., 2005). Of note, the authors show that the mean thickness across the entire cortex is not significantly different between meditators and non-meditators, indicating that meditation affects certain areas of the brain selectively. Currently, the research in Sarah Lazar’s lab completely focuses on neuroscience of yoga and meditation. You can check out her lab page for more info:

http://scholar.harvard.edu/sara_lazar

Also you can check-out the TEDx talk she gave about meditation and brain morphology:

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxCambridge-Sara-Lazar-on-how

Certainly, there needs to be more detailed and case controlled studies on how meditating changes neuronal communication. One thing that is sure is that meditating trains people to acknowledge a thought and then let that go. After all that is all you need to persevere.

Namaste 🙂

P.S. : In case if anyone has any questions about yoga, don’t hesitate to write a comment. I would be more than happy to discuss any questions.

 

Berrak is a guest author for Science ACEs. She is a PhD student studying molecular and human genetics and she teaches yoga in her spare time.

Featured image credit: http://magazine.uclahealth.org/body.cfm?id=6&action=detail&ref=835

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Meditation and Neuroscience

 

From Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to John Oliver’s social outrage, public interest in how the physical mind contributes to behavior and personality is at a high point. With this fresh understanding of our brains comes a desire to personally manipulate our neurology to address common mental health issues like anxiety or depression, as well as a desire to enhance focus and cognitive ability. While some proposed practices are high-tech, the decidedly low-tech practice of meditation is generating a lot of buzz. In particular, a subset of the practice, called mindfulness meditation, has recently been a focus of investigation in the field of neuroscience.

Mindfulness meditation, or Vipassana, is a specific school of meditation originating from Buddhist traditions. As opposed to mantra-oriented transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation is focused on awareness of the present moment. A major goal of the practice is to promote recognition of the mind-body connection, allowing the practitioner to recognize thoughts from a distance and preventing them from simply acting on impulse.

Brain1

livememe.com

The claims made by proponents of mindfulness meditation are extensive, but there is scientific support for many of the benefits. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine found that meditation can help treat mild anxiety and depression, as well as be an effective tool to manage stress. Mindfulness meditation has also been successfully used in chronic pain management. In light of the ongoing opioid abuse epidemic in the United States, alternative strategies to manage pain without the side effects of narcotic drugs may become more appealing to doctors.

However, like most trendy panaceas that come along, meditation should not be blindly embraced. This year, the British Journal of Psychiatry published a randomized controlled trial showing that patients with depression in remission who switched to mindfulness meditation from their previous medication were more likely to relapse into mental illness. Meditation may also negatively affect some individuals, rather than improving their quality of life. While meditation has been widely popularized as a mental health cure-all, it’s worth noting that, for some, it is a potentially dangerous replacement for conventional treatment.

This disconnect between the observed positive effects of mindfulness practice and the negative experiences that have been reported after intensive meditation is highlighted by how little we know about the neurological changes that occur with meditative practice. Use of the latest technology in the scientific investigation of meditation has only just begun, but there have been observable physical changes associated with mindfulness meditation, including increased thickness of the cerebral cortex, a brain region associated with attention and sensory processing,  and an enlarged hippocampus, a region involved in regulating emotional response. Meditation may also help slow the loss of gray matter in the brain that occurs naturally as we age.

Brain 2

An FMRI image of the human brain illustrates the technologies now available to study the effects of meditation.
Fair Use, Wikipedia

However, major changes in brain structure and size won’t necessarily be able to address why mindfulness meditation can help in the treatment of mental disorders and pain, or why different people may have extremely different responses to meditation. We are only just beginning to understand the finer details in neuroscience, including how neurotransmitters and neural circuitry contribute to overall brain function. As new tools and information become available, a more detailed picture is emerging of how meditation alters neurology, resulting in changes in perception and behavior. For example, meditation was recently shown to increase connectivity of specific neural networks while decreasing the connectivity of others, indicating that there is considerable nuance to the effects of meditation on the brain. Personally, I’m hoping that both public interest and research funding hold out long enough for satisfying explanations to be found.

Charlene
Charlene is a PhD student in Molecular and Human Genetics, currently studying DNA repair using yeast as a model organism. She plans on pursuing a career in science communications.

Science ACEs Feature: Mental Health

In 2013, President Obama designated May as National Mental Health Awareness Month to improve understanding and cognizance about the state of mental health in our country. This yearly campaign aims to increase awareness about the prevalence of mental illness and stigmas associated with mental conditions, and to provide information about support and treatment for people suffering from these disorders. We believe it is important to continue this conversation year-round.

Over the next four weeks, the Science ACEs blog will run eight pieces on mental health issues. These articles will discuss some of the science of mental illness, but we will also talk about the very personal, real impact mental illness has in our lives and on our society. We will discuss specific findings in neurobiology and present accounts of real people coping with and getting treated for mental health disorders.

In these coming weeks, we hope you take the time to consider the hidden struggles of others. Did you know that 1 in 5 adults in the US experiences mental health problems in a given year? Or that 1 in 25 will experience mental illness severe enough to disrupt their daily lives? Mental illness is not reserved for the sanitary white walls of a hospital – it affects your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers, and maybe yourself. Mental illness has an impact not only on the sufferer, but on family members and friends as well. With so many around us affected, empathy and compassion should not be underrated as forces for change.

Unfortunately, mental health and mental illness are not well understood by society or as a general field of study. It can be difficult for individuals to conceptualize what is happening in someone else’s mind, just as it can be difficult for science to dissect the mind as an emergent property of the brain. The mechanisms of how neurological activity creates thoughts and emotions remain mysterious. The Science ACEs are learning more about these topics even as we write these articles and share our experiences. Join us as we explore these mysteries!

We can’t cover every aspect of mental illness in our one-month feature, but you can learn more about mental health and mental illnesses at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website: http://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Fact-Sheet-Library.

As always, feel free to email us at science.aces15@gmail.com or reach out to us on twitter @scienceaces.

Sincerely,

-The Science ACEs team