Saturday, November 12, 2005

Grow A Brain, Willya? (Or, Let's Hear It for Neuroplasticity!)

They said it couldn't be done.

But, recently, they said otherwise.

Meditation Associated With Increased Grey Matter In The Brain

Meditation is known to alter resting brain patterns, suggesting long lasting brain changes, but a new study by researchers from Yale, Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows meditation also is associated with increased cortical thickness.

The structural changes were found in areas of the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive and emotional processing, the researchers report in the November issue of NeuroReport.

Although the study included only 20 participants, all with extensive training in Buddhist Insight meditation, the results are significant, said Jeremy Gray, assistant professor of psychology at Yale and co-author of the study led by Sara Lazar, assistant in psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"What is most fascinating to me is the suggestion that meditation practice can change anyone's grey matter," Gray said. "The study participants were people with jobs and families. They just meditated on average 40 minutes each day, you don't have to be a monk."

Magnetic resonance imaging showed that regular practice of meditation is associated with increased thickness in a subset of cortical regions related to sensory, auditory, visual and internal perception, such as heart rate or breathing. The researchers also found that regular meditation practice may slow age-related thinning of the frontal cortex.

Hmm. No kidding.

So there's hope for--change?

Here's another article on meditation altering brain structure. The salient point here, as above, is that something immaterial (directed thoughts) are causing measurable changes in material objects (brain structure and function).

Meditation Alters Brain Structure

Scans of Monks' Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning -- SCIENCE JOURNAL By SHARON BEGLEY - November 5, 2004

All of the Dalai Lama's guests peered intently at the brain scan projected onto screens at either end of the room, but what different guests they were.

On one side sat five neuroscientists, united in their belief that physical processes in the brain can explain all the wonders of the mind, without appeal to anything spiritual or nonphysical.

Facing them sat dozens of Tibetan Buddhist monks in burgundy-and-saffron robes, convinced that one round-faced young man in their midst is the reincarnation of one of the Dalai Lama's late teachers, that another is the reincarnation of a 12th-century monk, and that the entity we call "mind" is not, as neuroscience says, just a manifestation of the brain.

It was not, in other words, your typical science meeting.

But although the Buddhists and scientists who met for five days last month in the Dalai Lama's home in Dharamsala, India, had different views on the little matters of reincarnation and the relationship of mind to brain, they set them aside in the interest of a shared goal.

They had come together in the shadows of the Himalayas to discuss one of the hottest topics in brain science: neuroplasticity.

The term refers to the brain's recently discovered ability to change its structure and function, in particular by expanding or strengthening circuits that are used and by shrinking or weakening those that are rarely engaged. In its short history, the science of neuroplasticity has mostly documented brain changes that reflect physical experience and input from the outside world. In pianists who play many arpeggios, for instance, brain regions that control the index finger and middle finger become fused, apparently because when one finger hits a key in one of these fast-tempo movements, the other does so almost simultaneously, fooling the brain into thinking the two fingers are one. As a result of the fused brain regions, the pianist can no longer move those fingers independently of one another.

Lately, however, scientists have begun to wonder whether the brain can change in response to purely internal, mental signals. That's where the Buddhists come in. Their centuries-old tradition of meditation offers a real-life experiment in the power of those will-o'-the-wisps, thoughts, to alter the physical matter of the brain.

"Of all the concepts in modern neuroscience, it is neuroplasticity that has the greatest potential for meaningful interaction with Buddhism," says neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Dalai Lama agreed, and he encouraged monks to donate (temporarily) their brains to science.

The result was the scans that Prof. Davidson projected in Dharamsala. They compared brain activity in volunteers who were novice meditators to that of Buddhist monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation. The task was to practice "compassion" meditation, generating a feeling of loving kindness toward all beings.

"We tried to generate a mental state in which compassion permeates the whole mind with no other thoughts," says Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics.

In a striking difference between novices and monks, the latter showed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves during compassion meditation. Thought to be the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits, gamma waves underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators "showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature," says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.

Using the brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists pinpointed regions that were active during compassion meditation. In almost every case, the enhanced activity was greater in the monks' brains than the novices'. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling circuit that switches on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks. So did regions responsible for planned movement, as if the monks' brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.

"It feels like a total readiness to act, to help," recalled Mr. Ricard.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. . . .

That opens up the tantalizing possibility that the brain, like the rest of the body, can be altered intentionally. Just as aerobics sculpt the muscles, so mental training sculpts the gray matter in ways scientists are only beginning to fathom.

Maybe we could get all the black-heart neo-cons down at Gitmo, force them at gunpoint to meditate on compassion, change their brain structure, dump the war and poverty thing, and return to peace and prosperity.

Maybe we can sculpt our own gray matter so as to cope even more successfully with the currently ongoing, malignant cadre of black-heart neo-con Bushist fascists?

Or maybe we can be inspired by hearing the Dalai Lama gently beating some sense into Pat Robertson and his ilk during his recent visit to Washington.

'For most of the 14,000 conference participants who watched in the lecture hall or from overflow rooms, the Dalai Lama's enthusiastic embrace of science and promotion of meditation were warmly received. His 10-day visit . . will continue today at MCI Center, where he is scheduled to give a public talk on "Global Peace Through Compassion."

The author of a new book on the convergence of Buddhism and science, the Dalai Lama has met with prominent scientists around the world for almost 20 years and has encouraged an increasingly fruitful collaboration between brain researchers and Tibetan monks.

Because of the controversy over his speech to the neuroscientists in Washington, his aides said he would keep to a prepared text, something quite unusual for him. But he often diverged from the text, despite saying with a smile that he was feeling unusual "stress."

His talk focused on how he developed his interest in science as a boy in Tibet, within a closed and isolated society, and on his view that morality and compassion are central to science. He pointed out in his prepared text, for instance, that although the atom bomb was great science, it created great moral problems.

"It is no longer adequate to adopt the view that our responsibility as a society is to simply further scientific knowledge and enhance technological power and that the choice of what to do with this knowledge and power should be left in the hands of the individual," he said.

"By invoking fundamental ethical principles, I am not advocating a fusion of religious ethics and scientific inquiry. Rather, I am speaking of what I call 'secular ethics' that embrace the key ethical principles, such as compassion, tolerance, a sense of caring, consideration of others, and the responsible use of knowledge and power -- principles that transcend the barriers between religious believers and nonbelievers, and followers of this religion or that religion," he said.

He acknowledged that some might wonder why a Buddhist monk is taking such an interest in science.

"What relation could there be between Buddhism, an ancient Indian philosophical and spiritual tradition, and modern science?" he said. His answer was that the scientific empirical approach and the Buddhist exploration of the mind and world have many similarities.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, however, the Dalai Lama is known as the reincarnation of a major force for compassion, and his strongest words yesterday were directed at religious people who might lack that trait.

"People who call themselves religious without basic human values like compassion, they are not really religious people," he told the audience, offering no names. "They are hypocrites."

The words were unusually critical for a speaker who likes to emphasize the positive and productive.'

And I hope and trust that when the Dalai Lama met George W. Bush, he gave Bush a real piece of his mind.

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