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Meditation on the Brain: a Conversation with Andrew Newberg

Dr_Andrew_NewbergDr. Andrew New­berg is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Radi­ol­o­gy and Psy­chi­a­try and Adjunct Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Reli­gious Stud­ies at the 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. Alvaro Fer­nan­dez inter­views him here as part of our research for the book The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age.

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).

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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.

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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 »

Improve Brain Health Now: Easy Steps

We can sum­ma­rize a lot of research by say­ing that there are four essen­tial pil­lars to main­tain­ing a healthy brain that func­tions bet­ter now and lasts longer. Those pil­lars are:

  • 1) Phys­i­cal Exer­cise
  • 2) Men­tal Exer­cise
  • 3) Good Nutri­tion
  • 4) Stress Man­age­ment

Great … now what?! How do you devel­op a healthy lifestyle that includes all four pil­lars? Let’s look at each one.

  1. 1. Phys­i­cal Exer­cise
    • - Start by talk­ing to your doc­tor, espe­cial­ly if you are not cur­rent­ly phys­i­cal­ly active, have spe­cial health con­cerns, or are mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant changes to your cur­rent pro­gram.
    • - Set a goal that you can achieve. Do some­thing you enjoy for even just 15 min­utes a day. You can always add more time and activ­i­ties lat­er.
    • - Sched­ule exer­cise into your dai­ly rou­tine. It will be become a habit faster if you do.
    • - If you can only do one thing, do some­thing car­dio­vas­cu­lar, mean­ing some­thing that gets your heart beat­ing faster. This includes walk­ing, run­ning, ski­ing, swim­ming, bik­ing, hik­ing, ten­nis, bas­ket­ball, play­ing tag, ulti­mate Fris­bee, and oth­er sim­i­lar sports/activities.
  2. 2. Men­tal Exer­cise
    • - Be curi­ous! Get to know your local library and com­mu­ni­ty col­lege, look for local orga­ni­za­tions or church­es that offer class­es or work­shops
    • - Do a vari­ety of things, includ­ing Read the rest of this entry »

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