16 Feb 2018

Putting mindfulness to the test

Theta connectivity averaged across
conditions. Image: Neil Bailey
by Anne Crawford

Mindfulness meditation with its images of people sitting cross-legged and closed-eyed was once thought of as being almost mystical, but scientific studies are revealing very tangible benefits to those practising it and observable changes in the brain.

The practice has been shown to be effective for preventing the relapse of depression and for other mental illnesses such as anxiety, for relieving stress and helping with chronic pain. People who use it show improved attention.

But the cause of these changes is unclear and under-researched. Now, a Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre (MAPrc) study is set to look for the mechanism that leads to the practice’s positive effects.

The centre’s Dr Neil Bailey this month received funding that will allow him to conduct a year-long trial probing brain activity waves using an EEG and TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) to investigate different ways the practice is changing the brain.

The trial builds on previous studies by Dr Bailey and colleagues into mindfulness and brain activity. “Our evidence shows it improved stress and cognitive function. We’ve found that people who practise a lot do better on cognitive tasks while less energy is exerted by the brain,” he said.

Put simply, mindfulness means focussing on the present moment, training your attention by focussing on the sensation of breathing, and being aware of sensations in the body.

Dr Bailey has a personal as well as scientific interest in it; he has practised mindfulness for eight years, honing it in several 10-day silent retreats that require participants to do 100 hours of meditation.

“I work better, sleep better, worry less about things and am so much more able to see the bigger picture and find solutions,” Dr Bailey said. “The more I do, the better I am.”

Research has not established how long people should spend meditating a day for maximum benefit, though many instructors recommend 15 to 20 minutes, he said.

Mindfulness meditation, which has its roots in Buddhism, has become increasingly popular in the past five or years or so, practised from the corporate world to the classroom, by AFL footballers to senior citizens. Whole institutes are devoted to it, organisations countering depression enlist it, there are thousands of books about it and nearly 90 million Google entries.

Dr Bailey first became interested in mindfulness while reading about a study by Dr Britta Hölzel et al more than a decade ago which took brain scans of mindfulness meditators and non-meditators. The study, and the studies of other researchers, demonstrated thicker brain matter in the brains of meditators in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates attention and in the hippocampus, which is associated with memory.

“We now know that the brain isn’t static and changes as we learn new skills, called neuroplasticity; mindfulness meditation trains the process of directing your attention so you’re upregulating those brain regions in terms of activity and increasing structure in that region,” he said.

Dr Bailey said that research demonstrating the positive effects of mindfulness created more confidence in people about it. “The short-term goal of the research is a better understanding of how mindfulness meditation changes the brain and how that might benefit people with mental health problems,” he said.

“In the long term, investigating how effective it is might help in making the strongest case for its benefits, for example, in convincing politicians and those who develop educational curriculum that mindfulness would be really beneficial in core curriculum in high schools. For example, in the UK about 40 percent of schools use it.”

The $15,000 grant from The Alfred Hospital will allow Dr Bailey to fund three honours students to collect data for the study.

MAPrc is now recruiting 30-40 participants who are currently practising at least two hours of meditation a week, and have been practising meditation for at least two years, and also healthy controls who have never practised meditation for the comparison group.

Enquiries: Dr Neil Bailey at neil.bailey@monash.edu
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