Mindfulness training holds promise for treating mood isorders partly because it may lead to changes in patients’ brains, improving connectivity among some
brain areas and changing tissue density in key regions, research
The evidence indicates that when people pay attention to
the present moment — an experiential self-reference — they
use a different set of neural pathways than when they engage in
narrative self-reference to think about experiences over time,
explains University of Toronto neuroscientist Norman Farb,
PhD, who has studied the brains of meditators using fMRI
(Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2007).
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy encourages people
with mood disorders to pay attention to sensations and feelings
rather than evaluative thoughts. That in turn exercises and
strengthens the pathways involved in experiential self-reference.
“Mindfulness changes the brain by allowing people to
access this present-moment pathway,” says Zindel Segal, PhD, a
professor at the University of Toronto. “This is vitally important
for working with sad mood states.”
If patients haven’t had mindfulness training, Segal adds,
they will continually activate their pathways for narrative self-
reference and executive control and their present-moment
pathways will get weaker.
Researchers are exploring how the ability to live in the
moment may persist beyond mindfulness practice sessions. One
study by Veronique Taylor and colleagues at the University of
Montreal that used fMRI to compare experienced meditators
with novice meditators found that even in a resting state, the
former had less activity among areas of the brain involved
in self-referential thoughts (Social Cognitive and Affective
Mindfulness may even change tissue density in some
regions. Harvard University neuroscientist Sara Lazar, PhD,
The researchers found that participants’ grey matter density
shrank in the amygdala and the change was correlated with
decreases in stress; there was no control group for the study.
The amygdala is also implicated in anxiety disorders, which may
be one way in which mindfulness helps ease anxiety and stress
as well as depression, Lazar says.
An additional analysis of the same group of participants
showed that they also had increases in density in two other brain
areas: the posterior cingulate cortex, which is related to sustained
attention, and the left hippocampus, which may contribute
to emotion regulation (Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging,
2011). In addition, researchers saw changes in areas of the brain
— Stacy Lu
stem potentially related to serotonin production — alterations
that were positively correlated with self-reported aspects of
psychological well-being (Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, 2014).
The neural changes brought on by mindfulness appear to be
following the basic rules of neuroplasticity, Lazar says.
“If you practice something new, then you’re going to get
enhanced connectivity in neural structures,” she explains. “That
can mean an increase in the number of synapses or changes in
neurotransmitter release that promote an increase in function.”
“Meditation is a lifestyle,” she says.
Mindfulness and mood disorders in the brain
To watch Dr. Sara Lazar explain
how meditation can reshape our
brains, go to www.youtube.com/