1. Study looks at how stress can cause disease

    January 24, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    A Michigan State University researcher is providing new insight into how certain types of stress interact with immune cells and can regulate how these cells respond to allergens, ultimately causing physical symptoms and disease.

    The federally funded study, published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, showed how a stress receptor, known as corticotropin-releasing factor, or CRF1, can send signals to certain immune cells, called mast cells, and control how they defend the body.

    During the study, Moeser compared the histamine responses of mice to two types of stress conditions — psychological and allergic — where the immune system becomes overworked. One group of mice was considered “normal” with CRF1 receptors on their mast cells and the other group had cells that lacked CRF1.

    “While the ‘normal’ mice exposed to stress exhibited high histamine levels and disease, the mice without CRF1 had low histamine levels, less disease and were protected against both types of stress,” Moeser said. “This tells us that CRF1 is critically involved in some diseases initiated by these stressors.”

    The CRF1-deficient mice exposed to allergic stress had a 54 percent reduction in disease, while those mice who experienced psychological stress had a 63 percent decrease.

    The results could change the way everyday disorders such as asthma and the debilitating gastrointestinal symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome are treated.

    “We all know that stress affects the mind-body connection and increases the risk for many diseases,” Moeser said. “The question is, how?”

    “This work is a critical step forward in decoding how stress makes us sick and provides a new target pathway in the mast cell for therapies to improve the quality of life of people suffering from common stress-related diseases.”

    The National Institutes of Health funded the study.


  2. Researchers ‘dismantle’ mindfulness intervention to see how each component works

    December 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Brown University press release:

    As health interventions based on mindfulness have grown in popularity, some of the field’s leading researchers have become concerned that the evidence base for such practices is not yet robust enough. A new study shows how a rigorous approach to studying mindfulness-based interventions can help ensure that claims are backed by science.

    One problem is that mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) sometimes blend practices, which makes it difficult to measure how each of those practices affects participants. To address that issue, the researchers took a common intervention for mood disorders — mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) — and created a controlled study that isolated, or dismantled, its two main ingredients. Those include open monitoring (OM) –– noticing and acknowledging negative feelings without judgment or an emotional secondary reaction to them; and focused attention (FA) — maintaining focus on or shifting it toward a neutral sensation, such as breathing, to disengage from negative emotions or distractions.

    “It has long been hypothesized that focused attention practice improves attentional control while open-monitoring promotes emotional non-reactivity — two aspects of mindfulness thought to contribute its therapeutic effects,” said study lead and corresponding author Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior in the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. “However, because these two practices are almost always delivered in combination, it is difficult to assess their purported differential effects. By creating separate, validated, single-ingredient training programs for each practice, the current project provides researchers with a tool to test the individual contributions of each component and mechanism to clinical endpoints.”

    In the study, the researchers randomized more than 100 individuals with mild-to-severe depression, anxiety and stress to take one of three eight-week courses: one set of classes provided a standardized MBCT that incorporated the typical blend of OM and FA. The two other classes each provided an intervention that employed only OM or only FA. In every other respect — time spent in class, time practicing at home, instructor training and skill, participant characteristics, number of handouts — each class was comparable by design.

    At the beginning and end of the classes, the researchers asked the volunteers to answer a variety of standardized questionnaires, including scales that measure their self-reported ability to achieve some of the key skills each practice is assumed to improve. If the researchers saw significant differences between the FA group and the OM group on the skills each was supposed to affect, then there would be evidence that the practices uniquely improve those skills as intervention providers often claim.

    Sure enough, the different practices engaged different skills and mechanisms as predicted. The FA-only group, for example, reported much greater improvement in the ability to willfully shift or focus attention than the OM-only group (but not the MBCT group, which also received FA training). Meanwhile, the OM-only group was significantly more improved than the FA-only group (but not the MBCT group) in the skill of being non-reactive to negative thoughts.

    “If FA practice promotes attentional control, and OM practice promotes emotional non-reactivity, then end users can alter the amount of each practice to fit their individual needs for each skill,” Britton said. “The study created validated single-practice programs that can be used by other researchers or providers for specific populations or conditions. This is the first step to an evidence-based personalized medicine approach to mindfulness.”

    The Science of Behavior Change

    Along with co-author and epidemiology associate professor Eric Loucks, director of Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, Britton is part of the five-university Mindfulness Research Collaborative. The collaborative is one of eight teams in the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) Research Network.

    The new research will appear in print inae February 2018 special issue of the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy titled “An experimental medicine approach to behavior change: The NIH Science Of Behavior Change (SOBC),” which takes a mechanism-focused approach to studying behavioral interventions.

    The Mindfulness Research Collaborative (MRC) consists of 11 mindfulness researchers across five universities, and is one of the eight teams in the SOBC Research Network who are working to advance a mechanism-focused approach to behavioral interventions. The collaborative’s SOBC project “Mindfulness Influences on Self-Regulation: Mental and Physical Health Implications” seeks to identify self-regulation intervention targets that are engaged by MBIs, as well as factors that influence target engagement. The current paper describes the “Dismantling Mindfulness” concurrent clinical trial.

    Britton said the SOBC approach can make mindfulness more effective for people who practice it.

    “Mindfulness research in general could benefit from employing the SOBC experimental medicine approach,” she said. “Little is known about how MBIs work or how they should be modified to maximize effectiveness. The SOBC experimental medicine approach will not only help MBIs become maximally effective, but also provide essential mechanistic information that will help tailor the intervention and instructor training to specific populations and conditions.”


  3. NIH study of WWII evacuees suggests mental illness may be passed to offspring

    December 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the NIH/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development press release:

    Mental illness associated with early childhood adversity may be passed from generation to generation, according to a study of adults whose parents evacuated Finland as children during World War II. The study was conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health, Uppsala University in Sweden, and Helsinki University in Finland. It appears in JAMA Psychiatry.

    The research team found that daughters of female evacuees had the same high risk for mental health disorders as their mothers, even though they did not experience the same adversity. The study could not determine why the higher risk for mental illness persisted across generations. Possible explanations include changes in the evacuees’ parenting behavior stemming from their childhood experience or epigenetic changes — chemical alterations in gene expression, without any changes to underlying DNA.

    “Many studies have shown that traumatic exposures during pregnancy can have negative effects on offspring,” said study author Stephen Gilman, Sc.D., of the Division of Intramural Population Health Research at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “Here, we found evidence that a mother’s childhood traumatic exposure — in this case separation from family members during war — may have long-lasting health consequences for her daughters.”

    From 1941 to 1945, roughly 49,000 Finish children were evacuated from their homes to protect them from bombings, malnutrition and other hazards during the country’s wars with the Soviet Union. The children, many of them only preschoolers, were placed with foster families in Sweden. In addition to separation from their families, the children faced the stresses of adapting to their foster families, and in many cases, learning a new language. Upon their return, many children experienced the additional stress of readjusting to Finnish society.

    During the same time, thousands of Finnish families chose not to evacuate all their children and often kept some at home, but little information exists on the rationale for their decisions. The researchers compared the risk of being hospitalized for a psychiatric (mental health) disorder among offspring of the evacuees to the risks of psychiatric hospitalization among the offspring of the siblings who remained with their parents. Studying the two groups — cousins to each other — allowed the researchers to compensate for family-based factors that can contribute to mental health problems and to focus instead on the evacuees’ wartime experience.

    In a previous study, the researchers found that women evacuated as children were more than twice as likely to be hospitalized for a psychiatric disorder than their female siblings who remained at home. For the current study, the researchers linked records from this generation — more than 46,000 siblings born between 1933 and 1944 — to those of their offspring, more than 93,000 individuals born after 1950. Of these, nearly 3,000 were offspring of parents who had been evacuated to Sweden as children, and more than 90,000 were offspring of parents who remained in Finland during the war.

    The researchers found that female evacuees and their daughters were at the greatest risk for being hospitalized for mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder. In fact, the evacuees’ daughters had more than four times the risk of hospitalization for a mood disorder, compared to the daughters of mothers who stayed home — regardless of whether their mothers were hospitalized for a mood disorder.

    The researchers did not find any increase in psychiatric hospitalizations for the sons or daughters of males who had been evacuated as children.

    The study could not determine why the daughters of female evacuees had a higher risk of mental illness. One possibility is that the stresses of the evacuees’ experience affected their psychological development in ways that influenced their parenting style. Another possibility is that the evacuee experience resulted in epigenetic changes. For example, the researchers cited an earlier finding that Holocaust survivors have higher levels of compounds known as methyl groups bound to the gene FKBP5 and have passed this change on to their children. This higher level of methyl groups appears to alter the production of cortisol, a hormone that regulates the stress response.

    “The Finnish evacuation was intended to protect children from the many harms associated with the country’s wars with the Soviet Union,” said study co-author Torsten Santavirta, Ph.D., of Uppsala University. “Our observation of long-term psychiatric risk that reached into the next generation is concerning and underscores the need to weigh benefits as well as potential risks when designing policies for child protection.”

    The authors concluded that future studies are needed to understand how the experience of war affects the mental health of parents and their offspring and to develop interventions to help families affected by armed conflict.


  4. Study suggests exercise may be beneficial to mental health regimen

    November 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    More mental health providers may want to take a closer look at including exercise in their patients’ treatment plans, a new study suggests.

    Michigan State University and University of Michigan researchers asked 295 patients receiving treatment at a mental health clinic whether they wanted to be more physically active and if exercise helped improve their mood and anxiety. They also asked if patients wanted their therapist to help them become more active.

    Eighty-five percent said they wanted to exercise more and over 80 percent believed exercise helped improve their moods and anxiety much of the time. Almost half expressed interest in a one-time discussion, with many participants also wanting ongoing advice about physical activity with their mental health provider.

    The study is now published in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry.

    Physical activity has been shown to be effective in alleviating mild to moderate depression and anxiety,” said Carol Janney, lead author of the study and an MSU assistant professor of epidemiology. “Current physical activity guidelines advise at least 30 minutes, five days a week to promote mental and physical health, yet many of those surveyed weren’t meeting these recommendations.”

    More than half of the participants said their mood limited their ability to exercise, which Janney said provides an opportunity for physicians and therapists in clinics to offer additional support.

    “Offering physical activity programs inside the mental health clinics may be one of many patient-centered approaches that can improve the mental and physical health of patients,” Janney said.

    Marcia Valenstein, senior author and professor emeritus in psychiatry at U-M, agreed.

    “Mental health treatment programs need to partner with fitness programs to support their patients’ willingness to exercise more,” she said. “This support might come from integrating personal trainers into mental health clinics or having strong partnerships with the YMCA or other community recreational facilities.”

    Both Valenstein and Janney said that psychiatrists and other providers might discuss with patients the general need to exercise, but few actually sit down with patients and create a comprehensive exercise plan for them or regularly make sure they are adhering to a specific goal.

    “Mental health providers such as psychiatrists and therapists may not have the necessary training to prescribe physical activity as part of their mental health practice,” Janney said. “But by teaming up with certified personal trainers or other exercise programs, it may help them prescribe or offer more recommendations for physical activity in the clinic setting.”

    Results also showed that over half of the patients surveyed showed interest in getting help from a personal trainer and were willing to pay a bit extra, but that the topic of physical activity was rarely discussed by their physician.

    “This is a missed opportunity,” Valenstein said. “If we can make it easier for both therapists and their patients to have easier access to physical activity services, then we are likely to help more patients reduce their depression and anxiety.”

    Once the effectiveness of this approach is proven, she added, health insurers might consider moving in the direction of covering services that help people exercise.

    “Several insurers already do this for diabetes prevention, so it’s not out of the question.”


  5. Study examines CBT use for chronic pain

    by Ashley

    From the Wolters Kluwer Health press release:

    By teaching patients better strategies for coping with chronic pain, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a valuable treatment alternative for the millions of Americans taking opioids for noncancer pain, according to an article in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice. The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.

    “Cognitive behavioral therapy is a useful and empirically based method of treatment for pain disorders that can decrease reliance on the excessive use of opiates,” write Drs. Muhammad Hassan Majeed of Natchaug Hospital, Mansfield Center, Conn., and Donna M. Sudak of Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia. They discuss evidence supporting the use of CBT to avoid or reduce the use of opioids for chronic pain.

    CBT Offers Effective, Safer Alternative to Opioids for Chronic Pain

    Rising use of opioid (sometimes called opiate) medications to treat chronic noncancer pain is a major contributor to the US opioid crisis. But despite the aggressive marketing and prescribing of these powerful painkillers, there has been little change in the amount and severity of pain reported by Americans over the past decade. “There is no evidence that supports the use of opioids for the treatment of chronic pain for more than one year, and chronic use increases the serious risks of misuse, abuse, addiction, overdose, and death,” Drs. Majeed and Sudak write.

    They believe that CBT is an important alternative to opioids for treatment of chronic pain. The goal of CBT is to help patients change the way they think about and manage their pain. The idea is not that pain (in the absence of tissue damage) “is all in your head” — but rather that all pain is “in the head.” Cognitive behavioral therapy helps patients understand that pain is a stressor and, like other stressors, is something they can adapt to and cope with.

    Interventions may include relaxation training, scheduling pleasant activities, cognitive restructuring, and guided exercise — all in the context of an “empathic and validating” relationship with the therapist. These interventions “have the potential to relieve pain intensity, improve the quality of life, and improve physical and emotional function,” according to the authors.

    “Therapy helps the patient see that emotional and psychological factors influence perception of pain and behaviors that are associated with having pain,” Drs. Majeed and Sudak write. “Therapy…puts in place cognitive and behavioral strategies to help patients cope more successfully.”

    The authors cite several recent original studies and review articles supporting the effectiveness of CBT and other alternative approaches for chronic pain. Studies suggest that CBT has a “top-down” effect on pain control and perception of painful stimuli. It can also normalize reductions in the brain’s gray matter volume, which are thought to result from the effects of chronic stress.

    Cognitive behavioral therapy is moderately effective in reducing pain scores, while avoiding or reducing the opioid risks of overuse, addiction, overdose, and death. It can be used as a standalone treatment; in combination with other treatments, including effective non-opioid medications; or as part of efforts to reduce the opioid doses required to control chronic pain.

    Unfortunately, CBT and other nondrug treatments are underused due to unfamiliarity, time pressure, patient demands, ease of prescribing medications, and low reimbursement rates. Drs. Majeed and Sudak note that significant investment of resources will be needed to train practitioners and to widely integrate the use of CBT into chronic pain treatment. The authors suggest that the President’s Commission on the opioid crisis might fund such training programs as a preventive strategy to curb opioid abuse.

    “There is a need for a paradigm shift from a biomedical to a biopsychosocial model for effective pain treatment and prevention of opioid use disorder,” Dr. Majeed comments. “Increased use of CBT as an alternative to opioids may help to ease the clinical, financial, and social burden of pain disorders on society.”


  6. Mental training changes brain structure and reduces social stress

    October 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences press release:

    Meditation is beneficial for our well-being. This ancient wisdom has been supported by scientific studies focusing on the practice of mindfulness. However, the words “mindfulness” and “meditation” denote a variety of mental training techniques that aim at the cultivation of various different competencies. In other words, despite growing interest in meditation research, it remains unclear which type of mental practice is particularly useful for improving either attention and mindfulness or social competencies, such as compassion and perspective-taking.

    Other open questions are, for example, whether such practices can induce structural brain plasticity and alter brain networks underlying the processing of such competencies, and which training methods are most effective in reducing social stress. To answer these questions, researchers from the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany conducted the large-scale ReSource Project aiming at teasing apart the unique effects of different methods of mental training on the brain, body, and on social behaviour.

    The ReSource Project consisted of three 3-month training modules, each focusing on a different competency. The first module trained mindfulness-based attention and interoception. Participants were instructed in classical meditation techniques similar to those taught in the 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR), which requires one to focus attention on the breath (Breathing Meditation), on sensations in different parts of the body (Body Scan), or on visual or auditory cues in the environment. Both exercises were practised in solitude.

    Training in the second module focused on socio-affective competencies, such as compassion, gratitude, and dealing with difficult emotions. In addition to classical meditation exercises, participants learnt a new technique requiring them to practise each day for 10 minutes in pairs. These partner exercises, or so-called “contemplative dyads,” were characterised by a focused exchange of every-day life affective experiences aiming to train gratitude, dealing with difficult emotions, and empathic listening.

    In the third module, participants trained socio-cognitive abilities, such as metacognition and perspective-taking on aspects of themselves and on the minds of others. Again, besides classical meditation exercises, this module also offered dyadic practices focusing on improving perspective-taking abilities. In pairs, participants learnt to mentally take the perspective of an “inner part” or aspect of their personality. Examples of inner parts were the “worried mother,” the “curious child,” or the “inner judge.”

    By reflecting on a recent experience from this perspective, the speaker in dyadic pair-exercise trained in perspective-taking on the self, thus gaining a more comprehensive understanding of his or her inner world. By trying to infer which inner part is speaking, the listener practices taking the perspective of the other.

    All exercises were trained on six days a week for a total of 30 minutes a day. Researchers assessed a variety of measures such as psychological behavioural tests, brain measures by means of magnetic resonance-imaging (MRI), and stress markers such as cortisol release before and after each of the three three-month training modules.

    Depending on which mental training technique was practised over a period of three months, specific brain structures and related behavioural markers changed significantly in the participants. For example, after the training of mindfulness-based attention for three months, we observed changes in the cortex in areas previously shown to be related to attention and executive functioning.

    Simultaneously, attention increased in computer-based tasks measuring executive aspects of attention, while performance in measures of compassion or perspective-taking had not increased significantly. These social abilities were only impacted in our participants during the other two more intersubjective modules,” states Sofie Valk, first author of the publication, which has just been released by the journal Science Advances.

    “In the two social modules, focusing either on socio-affective or socio-cognitive competencies, we were able to show selective behavioural improvements with regard to compassion and perspective-taking. These changes in behaviour corresponded with the degree of structural brain plasticity in specific regions in the cortex which support these capacities,” according to Valk.

    “Even though brain plasticity in general has long been studied in neuroscience, until now little was known about the plasticity of the social brain. Our results provide impressive evidence for brain plasticity in adults through brief and concentrated daily mental practice, leading to an increase in social intelligence. As empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking are crucial competencies for successful social interactions, conflict resolution, and cooperation, these findings are highly relevant to our educational systems as well as for clinical application,” explains Prof. Tania Singer, principal investigator of the ReSource Project.

    Besides differentially affecting brain plasticity, the different types of mental training also differentially affected the stress response. “We discovered that in participants subjected to a psychosocial stress test, the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol was diminished by up to 51%. However, this reduced stress sensitivity was dependent on the types of previously trained mental practice,” says Dr Veronika Engert, first author of another publication from the ReSource Project, which describes the connection between mental training and the acute psychosocial stress response, also recently published in Science Advances. “Only the two modules focusing on social competencies significantly reduced cortisol release after a social stressor. We speculate that the cortisol stress response was affected particularly by the dyadic exercises practised in the social modules. The daily disclosure of personal information to a stranger coupled with the non-judgmental, empathic listening experience in the dyads may have “immunised” participants against the fear of social shame and judgment by others — typically a salient trigger of social stress. The concentrated training of mindfulness-based attention and interoceptive awareness, on the other hand, had no dampening effect on the release of cortisol after experiencing a social stressor.”

    Interestingly, despite these differences on the level of stress physiology, each of the 3-month training modules reduced the subjective perception of stress. This means that although objective, physiological changes in social stress reactivity were only seen when participants engaged with others and trained their inter-subjective abilities, and participants felt subjectively less stressed after all mental training modules.

    “The current results highlight not only that crucial social competencies necessary for successful social interaction and cooperation can still be improved in healthy adults and that such mental training leads to structural brain changes and to social stress reduction, but also that different methods of mental training have differential effects on the brain, on health, and behaviour. It matters what you train,” suggests Prof. Singer. “Once we have understood which mental training techniques have which effects, we will be able to employ these techniques in a targeted way to support mental and physical health.”

    For example, many currently popular mindfulness programmes may be a valid method to foster attention and strengthen cognitive efficiency. However, if we as a society want to become less vulnerable to social stress or train social competencies, such as empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking, mental training techniques focusing more on the “we” and social connectedness among people may be a better choice.


  7. Study suggests yoga, meditation improve brain function and energy levels

    September 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Waterloo press release:

    Practicing brief sessions of Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation can significantly improve brain function and energy levels, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo.

    The study found that practicing just 25 minutes of Hatha yoga or mindfulness meditation per day can boost the brain’s executive functions, cognitive abilities linked to goal-directed behavior and the ability to control knee-jerk emotional responses, habitual thinking patterns and actions.

    “Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation both focus the brain’s conscious processing power on a limited number of targets like breathing and posing, and also reduce processing of nonessential information,” said Peter Hall, associate professor in the School of Public Health & Health Systems. “These two functions might have some positive carryover effect in the near- term following the session, such that people are able to focus more easily on what they choose to attend to in everyday life.”

    Thirty-one study participants completed 25 minutes of Hatha yoga, 25 minutes of mindfulness meditation, and 25 minutes of quiet reading (a control task) in randomized order. Following both the yoga and meditation activities, participants performed significantly better on executive function tasks compared to the reading task.

    “This finding suggests that there may be something special about meditation — as opposed to the physical posing — that carries a lot of the cognitive benefits of yoga,” said Kimberley Luu, lead author on the paper.

    The study also found that mindfulness meditation and Hatha yoga were both effective for improving energy levels, but Hatha yoga had significantly more powerful effects than meditation alone.

    “There are a number of theories about why physical exercises like yoga improve energy levels and cognitive test performance,” said Luu. “These include the release of endorphins, increased blood flow to the brain, and reduced focus on ruminative thoughts. Though ultimately, it is still an open question.”

    Hatha yoga is one of the most common styles of yoga practiced in Western countries.

    It involves physical postures and breathing exercises combined with meditation. Mindfulness mediation involves observing thoughts, emotions and body sensations with openness and acceptance.

    Although the meditative aspect might be even more important than the physical posing for improving executive functions, there are additional benefits to Hatha yoga including improvements in flexibility and strength,” said Hall. “These benefits may make Hatha yoga superior to meditation alone, in terms of overall health benefits.”


  8. Eleven minutes of mindfulness training helps drinkers cut back

    September 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University College London press release:

    Brief training in mindfulness strategies could help heavy drinkers start to cut back on alcohol consumption, finds a new UCL study.

    After an 11-minute training session and encouragement to continue practising mindfulness — which involves focusing on what’s happening in the present moment — heavy drinkers drank less over the next week than people who were taught relaxation techniques, according to the study published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.

    “We found that a very brief, simple exercise in mindfulness can help drinkers cut back, and the benefits can be seen quite quickly,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Sunjeev Kamboj (UCL Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit).

    The researchers brought in 68 drinkers, who drink heavily but not to the point of having an alcohol use disorder.

    Half of them were trained to practise mindfulness, which teaches a heightened awareness of one’s feelings and bodily sensations, so that they pay attention to cravings instead of suppressing them. They were told that by noticing bodily sensations, they could tolerate them as temporary events without needing to act on them. The training was delivered through audio recordings, and only took 11 minutes. At the end of the training participants were encouraged to continue practising the techniques for the next week.

    The other half were taught relaxation strategies, chosen as a control condition that appeared to be just as credible as the mindfulness exercise for reducing alcohol use. The study was double-blind, meaning neither experimenters nor participants knew which strategy was being delivered.

    “We used a highly controlled experimental design, to ensure that any benefits of mindfulness training were not likely explained by people believing it was a better treatment,” said co-author Dr Tom Freeman (Senior fellow of the Society for the Study of Addiction), who was part of the research team while based at UCL.

    The mindfulness group drank 9.3 fewer units of alcohol (roughly equivalent to three pints of beer) in the following week compared to the week preceding the study, while there was no significant reduction in alcohol consumption among those who had learned relaxation techniques.

    “Practising mindfulness can make a person more aware of their tendency to respond reflexively to urges. By being more aware of their cravings, we think the study participants were able to bring intention back into the equation, instead of automatically reaching for the drink when they feel a craving,” Dr Kamboj said.

    Severe alcohol problems are often preceded by patterns of heavy drinking, so the researchers are hopeful that mindfulness could help to reduce drinking before more severe problems develop.

    “Some might think that mindfulness is something that takes a long time to learn properly, so we found it encouraging that limited training and limited encouragement could have a significant effect to reduce alcohol consumption,” said co-author Damla Irez (UCL Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology).

    “We’re hopeful that further studies will replicate our findings and provide more insight into how mindfulness training could be most effective in practice. Our team is also looking into how mindfulness might help people with other substance use problems,” said co-author Shirley Serfaty (UCL Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology).


  9. Study suggests elderly yoginis have greater cortical thickness

    August 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Scientists in Brazil have imaged elderly female yoga practitioners’ brains and found they have greater cortical thickness in the left prefrontal cortex, in brain areas associated with cognitive functions like attention and memory. The results suggest that yoga could be a way to protect against cognitive decline in old age.

    As we age, the structure and functionality of our brains change and this often leads to cognitive decline, including impaired attention or memory. One such change in the brain involves the cerebral cortex becoming thinner, which scientists have shown is correlated with cognitive decline. So, how can we slow or reverse these changes?

    You might think medication would be required, but surprisingly, the answer could lie in contemplative practices like yoga. Yoga practitioners consciously maintain postures, and perform breathing exercises and meditation.

    “In the same way as muscles, the brain develops through training,” explains Elisa Kozasa of Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in São Paulo, Brazil, a researcher involved in the study, which was recently published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. “Like any contemplative practice, yoga has a cognitive component in which attention and concentration are important.”

    Previous studies have suggested that yoga can have greater health benefits than similar aerobic exercises, and yoga practitioners have shown improved awareness, attention and memory. Older adults with mild cognitive impairment have also shown improvements after a short yoga training program.

    But can practicing yoga over several years significantly shape your brain and if so, could it offset some of the changes that happen in the aging brain? The research team wanted to see if elderly long-term yoga practitioners had any differences in terms of brain structure compared with healthy elderly people who had never practiced yoga.

    They recruited 21 female yoga practitioners (also known as yoginis) who had practiced yoga at least twice a week for a minimum of 8 years, although the group had an average of nearly 15 years of yoga practice. The researchers compared the yoginis with another group of 21 healthy women, who had never practiced yoga, meditation or any other contemplative practices, but who were well-matched to the yoginis in terms of their age (all the participants were 60 or over) and levels of physical activity. For more consistent results, the researchers only recruited women, and the participants completed surveys to see if there were any other factors at work that could affect brain structure, such as depression or level of formal education.

    The researchers scanned the participants’ brains using magnetic resonance imaging to see if there were any differences in brain structure. “We found greater thickness in the left prefrontal cortex in the yoginis, in brain regions associated with cognitive functions such as attention and memory,” says Rui Afonso, another researcher involved in the study. As the groups were well-matched in terms of other factors that can change brain structure, such as education and levels of depression, yoga practice appears to underlie the yoginis’ different brain structure.

    The results suggest that practicing yoga in the long-term can change the structure of your brain and could protect against cognitive decline in old age. However, the team plan to carry out more studies to see if these brain changes result in enhanced cognitive performance in elderly yoginis.

    Another possibility is that people with these brain features are more likely to be attracted to yoga. “We have compared experienced yoginis with non-practitioners, so we do not know if the yoginis already had these differences before they started yoga,” explains Afonso. “This can only be confirmed by studying people for a few years from the time they start yoga.”


  10. Study suggests meditation and yoga can ‘reverse’ DNA reactions which cause stress

    June 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Coventry University press release:

    Mind-body interventions (MBIs) such as meditation, yoga and Tai Chi don’t simply relax us; they can ‘reverse’ the molecular reactions in our DNA which cause ill-health and depression, according to a study by the universities of Coventry and Radboud.

    The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, reviews over a decade of studies analysing how the behaviour of our genes is affected by different MBIs including mindfulness and yoga.

    Experts from the universities conclude that, when examined together, the 18 studies — featuring 846 participants over 11 years — reveal a pattern in the molecular changes which happen to the body as a result of MBIs, and how those changes benefit our mental and physical health.

    The researchers focus on how gene expression is affected; in other words the way that genes activate to produce proteins which influence the biological make-up of the body, the brain and the immune system.

    When a person is exposed to a stressful event, their sympathetic nervous system (SNS) — the system responsible for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response — is triggered, in turn increasing production of a molecule called nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB) which regulates how our genes are expressed.

    NF-kB translates stress by activating genes to produce proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation at cellular level — a reaction that is useful as a short-lived fight-or-flight reaction, but if persistent leads to a higher risk of cancer, accelerated aging and psychiatric disorders like depression.

    According to the study, however, people who practise MBIs exhibit the opposite effect — namely a decrease in production of NF-kB and cytokines, leading to a reversal of the pro-inflammatory gene expression pattern and a reduction in the risk of inflammation-related diseases and conditions.

    The study’s authors say the inflammatory effect of the fight-or-flight response — which also serves to temporarily bolster the immune system — would have played an important role in humankind’s hunter-gatherer prehistory, when there was a higher risk of infection from wounds.

    In today’s society, however, where stress is increasingly psychological and often longer-term, pro-inflammatory gene expression can be persistent and therefore more likely to cause psychiatric and medical problems.

    Lead investigator Ivana Buric from the Brain, Belief and Behaviour Lab in Coventry University’s Centre for Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement said:

    “Millions of people around the world already enjoy the health benefits of mind-body interventions like yoga or meditation, but what they perhaps don’t realise is that these benefits begin at a molecular level and can change the way our genetic code goes about its business.

    “These activities are leaving what we call a molecular signature in our cells, which reverses the effect that stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed. Put simply, MBIs cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path which improves our wellbeing.

    “More needs to be done to understand these effects in greater depth, for example how they compare with other healthy interventions like exercise or nutrition. But this is an important foundation to build on to help future researchers explore the benefits of increasingly popular mind-body activities.”