Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Top 10 recent scientific studies on the value of mindfulness in education


More and more stud­ies are show­ing the poten­tial ben­e­fits of mind­ful­ness prac­tices for stu­dents –to improve phys­i­cal health, psy­cho­log­i­cal well-being, social skills, even aca­d­e­mic per­for­mance in some cases– as well as for teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors –pri­mar­ily to reduce stress and burnout–.

To give you an update on the land­scape of sci­en­tific research about the role of mind­ful­ness in edu­ca­tion, here goes our selec­tion of ten recent stud­ies, all of them recent ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­als, with brief descrip­tions of each Read the rest of this entry »

Under what conditions can mindfulness courses help health care workers manage stress and burnout?


Med­ical pro­fes­sion­als are bur­dened daily with the pain and suf­fer­ing of patients. Many work long hours, and reg­u­larly face stress­ful sit­u­a­tions. This bur­den does not come with­out con­se­quence: 60 per­cent of physi­cians report hav­ing expe­ri­enced burnout at some point in their careers.

Mind­ful­ness courses designed to help health care work­ers Read the rest of this entry »

Meditation can Change the Structure of the Brain

(Editor’s Note: We are pleased to bring you this arti­cle by Jason Marsh, thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Greater Good Mag­a­zine.)


I con­sider myself some­thing of a prospec­tive meditator—meaning that a seri­ous med­i­ta­tion prac­tice is always some­thing I’m about to start… next week. So for years, I’ve been mak­ing a men­tal note of new stud­ies show­ing that med­i­ta­tion can lit­er­ally change our brain struc­ture in ways that might boost con­cen­tra­tion, mem­ory, and pos­i­tive emotions.

The results seem entic­ing enough to make any­one drop into the full lotus position—until you read the fine print: Much of this research involves peo­ple who have med­i­tated for thou­sands of hours over many years; some of it zeroes in on Olympic-level med­i­ta­tors who have clocked 10,000 hours or more. Pretty daunting.

Well, a new study offers some hope—and makes the ben­e­fits of med­i­ta­tion seem within reach even for a novice like me. The study, pub­lished in Jan­u­ary in the jour­nal Psy­chi­a­try Research: Neu­roimag­ing, sug­gests that med­i­tat­ing for just 30 min­utes a day for eight weeks can increase the den­sity of gray mat­ter in brain regions asso­ci­ated with mem­ory, stress, and empa­thy. Read the rest of this entry »

Meditation on the Brain: a Conversation with Andrew Newberg

Dr. Andrew New­berg is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Radi­ol­ogy and Psy­chi­a­try and Adjunct Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Reli­gious Stud­ies at theAndrew Newberg Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. He has pub­lished a vari­ety of neu­roimag­ing stud­ies related to aging and demen­tia. He has also researched the neu­ro­phys­i­o­log­i­cal cor­re­lates of med­i­ta­tion, prayer, and how brain func­tion is asso­ci­ated with mys­ti­cal and reli­gious experiences.

Dr. New­berg, thank you for being with us today. Can you please explain the source of your inter­ests at the inter­sec­tion of brain research and spirituality?

Since I was a kid, I had a keen inter­est in spir­i­tual prac­tice. I always won­dered how spir­i­tu­al­ity and reli­gion affect us, and over time I came to appre­ci­ate how sci­ence can help us explore and under­stand the world around us, includ­ing why we humans care about spir­i­tual prac­tices. This, of course, led me to be par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in brain research.

Dur­ing med­ical school I was par­tic­u­larly attracted by the prob­lem of con­scious­ness. I was for­tu­nate to meet researcher Dr. Eugene D’Aquili in the early 1990s, who had been doing much research on reli­gious prac­tices effect on brain since the 1970s. Through him I came to see that brain imag­ing can pro­vide a fas­ci­nat­ing win­dow into the brain.

Can we define reli­gion and spir­i­tu­al­ity –which sound to me as very dif­fer­ent brain processes-, and why learn­ing about them may be help­ful from a purely sec­u­lar, sci­en­tific point of view?

Good point, def­i­n­i­tions mat­ter, since dif­fer­ent peo­ple may be search­ing for God in dif­fer­ent ways. I view being reli­gious as par­tic­i­pat­ing in orga­nized rit­u­als and shared beliefs, such as going to church. Being spir­i­tual, on the other hand, is more of an indi­vid­ual prac­tice, whether we call it med­i­ta­tion, or relax­ation, or prayer, aimed at expand­ing the self, devel­op­ing a sense of one­ness with the universe.

What is hap­pen­ing is that spe­cific prac­tices that have tra­di­tion­ally been asso­ci­ated with reli­gious and spir­i­tual con­texts may also be very use­ful from a main­stream, sec­u­lar, health point of view, beyond those con­texts. Sci­en­tists are research­ing, for exam­ple, what Read the rest of this entry »

Mindfulness and Meditation in Schools: Mindful Kids, Peaceful Schools

Mind­ful Kids, Peace­ful Schools

With eyes closed and deep breaths, stu­dents are learn­ing a new method to reduce anx­i­ety, con­flict, and atten­tion dis­or­ders. But don’t call it meditation.

— By Jill Suttie

At Toluca Lake ele­men­tary school in Los Ange­les, a cyclone fence encloses the asphalt black­top, which is teem­ing with kids. It’s recess time and the kids, who are mostly mindfulness exercises for teenagersLatino, are play­ing tag, yelling, throw­ing balls, and jump­ing rope. When the bell rings, they reluc­tantly stop and head back to their class­rooms except for Daniel Murphy’s sec­ond grade class.

Murphy’s stu­dents file into the school audi­to­rium, each car­ry­ing a round blue pil­low dec­o­rated with white stars. They enter gig­gling and chat­ting, but soon they are seated in a cir­cle on their cush­ions, eyes closed, quiet and con­cen­trat­ing. Two teach­ers give the chil­dren instruc­tions on how to pay atten­tion to their breath­ing, telling them to notice the rise and fall of their bel­lies and chests, the pas­sage of air in and out of their noses. Though the room is chilly the heat­ing sys­tem broke down ear­lier that day the chil­dren appear com­fort­able, many with Read the rest of this entry »

From Meditation to MBSR

meditationVery nice Los Ange­les Times arti­cle on the grow­ing research behind, and accep­tance of, med­i­ta­tion in main­stream med­i­cine (through what is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduc­tion, or MBSR): Doctor’s orders: Cross your legs and say ‘Om’.

A few quotes:

- “It appears to work. In a new study, pub­lished in Octo­ber in the jour­nal Pain, Natalia Morone, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of med­i­cine at the Uni­ver­sity of Pitts­burgh, tracked the effect of mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion on chronic lower back pain in adults 65 and older. The ran­dom­ized, con­trolled clin­i­cal trial found that the 37 peo­ple who par­tic­i­pated in an eight-week mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion pro­gram had sig­nif­i­cantly greater pain accep­tance and phys­i­cal func­tion than a sim­i­lar size con­trol group. Sub­se­quently, the con­trol group took the same eight-week pro­gram and had sim­i­lar results.”

- “As a med­i­ta­tor, I learned the value of being present and how that allows clar­ity in pro­cess­ing our daily lives,” Zeltzer said. “The clin­i­cal team sees chil­dren with chronic pain who are very dif­fi­cult to treat and have been to many other spe­cial­ists and feel dis­cour­aged by the time they come to us. I felt that learn­ing to med­i­tate would help the team feel a sense of bal­ance and equa­nim­ity in the face of the anx­i­ety and dis­tress brought to them by these patients and their families.”

- “SCIENTISTS have stud­ied the effects of med­i­ta­tion on pain for nearly three decades, ever since 1979, when MIT-trained micro­bi­ol­o­gist Jon Kabat-Zinn, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus and founder of the Cen­ter for Mind­ful­ness at the Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts Med­ical Cen­ter, used mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion in a 10-week pro­gram to teach chronic pain patients how to cope. Kabat-Zinn’s 1990 best­seller, “Full Cat­a­stro­phe Liv­ing,” described the tech­nique he used — mindfulness-based stress reduc­tion, or MBSR.”

Full arti­cle: Doctor’s orders: Cross your legs and say ‘Om’

Related posts:

- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR) and other stress man­age­ment techniques

- Mind & Life Institute

Pic: Den­nis Col­lette, via Flickr

Build Your Cognitive Reserve: An Interview with Dr. Yaakov Stern

Yaakov SternDr. Yaakov Stern is the Divi­sion Leader of the Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science Divi­sion of the Sergievsky Cen­ter, and Pro­fes­sor of Clin­i­cal Neu­ropsy­chol­ogy, at the Col­lege of Physi­cians and Sur­geons of Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity, New York. Alvaro Fer­nan­dez inter­views him here as part of our research for The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness book.

Dr. Stern is one of the lead­ing pro­po­nents of the Cog­ni­tive reserve the­ory, which aims to explain why some indi­vid­u­als with full Alzheimer’s pathol­ogy (accu­mu­la­tion of plaques and tan­gles in their brains) can keep nor­mal lives until they die, while oth­ers –with the same amount of plaques and tan­gles– dis­play the severe symp­toms we asso­ciate with Alzheimer’s Dis­ease. He has pub­lished dozens of peer-reviewed sci­en­tific papers on the subject.

The con­cept of a Cog­ni­tive Reserve has been around since 1989, when a post mortem analy­sis of 137 peo­ple with Alzheimer’s Dis­ease showed that some patients exhib­ited fewer clin­i­cal symp­toms than their actual pathol­ogy sug­gested. These patients also showed higher brain weights and greater num­ber of neu­rons when com­pared to age-matched con­trols. The inves­ti­ga­tors hypoth­e­sized that the patients had a larger “reserve” of neu­rons and abil­i­ties that enable them to off­set the losses caused by Alzheimer’s. Since then, the con­cept of Cog­ni­tive Reserve has been defined as the abil­ity of an indi­vid­ual to tol­er­ate pro­gres­sive brain pathol­ogy with­out demon­strat­ing clin­i­cal cog­ni­tive symp­toms. (You can check at the end of this inter­view a great clip on this).


Key take-aways

- Life­time expe­ri­ences, like edu­ca­tion, engag­ing occu­pa­tion, and leisure activ­i­ties, have been shown to have a major influ­ence on how we age, specif­i­cally on whether we will develop Alzheimer’s symp­toms or not.

- This is so because stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties, ide­ally com­bin­ing phys­i­cal exer­cise, learn­ing and social inter­ac­tion, help us build a Cog­ni­tive Reserve to pro­tect us.

- The ear­lier we start build­ing our Reserve, the bet­ter; but it is never too late to start. And, the more activ­i­ties, the bet­ter: the effect is cumulative.


The Cog­ni­tive Reserve

Alvaro Fer­nan­dez (AF): Dear Dr. Stern, it is a plea­sure to have you here. Let me first ask you this: the impli­ca­tions of your research are pretty broad, pre­sent­ing major impli­ca­tions across sec­tors and age groups. What has been the most unex­pected reac­tion so far?

YS: well…I was pretty sur­prised when Read the rest of this entry »




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