Exploring the Science Series: Neuroplasticity

For centuries, and actually until just recently due to the explosion of technology within neuroscience imaging, it was believed that once the brain developed fully throughout childhood/early adulthood, it became an unchanging, static organ with no capacity for physical growth or change. However, in recent and very exciting neuroscience publications, it has become clear that this is not the case, and in fact, the brain actually has the capacity to physically change throughout an individual’s entire lifetime. This plasticity means that neural functioning, once thought to be fixed, can be transferred to different locations within the brain, the proportion of gray matter can increase, synapses (or connections between neural cells) can strengthen or weaken over time. Our brain’s capacity for physical change is limitless.

Like going to the gym and lifting weights to build muscle strength, you can build attributes of your mind that you wish to increase through meditation…like weight lifting for the brain!

Specifically, let’s discuss some of the clinical studies which demonstrate that meditation will result in physical changes to the brain structure. This, by no means, is a comprehensive list. However, I’ve pulled some studies that I find interesting and applicable in the realm of cancer treatment.

Pain is commonly experienced by patients with cancer. Two meditative techniques, Zen meditation, a Japanese tradition emphasizing mindfulness, and yoga have been shown to result in increased gray matter (increased cortical thickness) in the regions of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex and insula.  These regions of the brain are involved in pain, emotions, perception, self-awareness, drug cravings/addiction, and consciousness. The increase in cortical volume in the insula resulting from these practices was associated with greater pain tolerance. Interestingly, the longer the meditator’s or yogi’s experience, the thicker the gray matter became, and this correlated with increasing levels of pain tolerance. (1,2)

Practicing Zen meditation or yoga can help you to have a higher pain tolerance.

Another common symptom during and after cancer therapy? What patients often refer to as “chemobrain”, a brain fog that results in poor short term memory and decreased cognitive processing. A form of meditation called insight meditation, described as cultivating nonjudgmental present moment awareness via sustained attention to internal and external sensory stimuli, was studied and shown to result in thicker cortex in meditation participants than matched controls in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This area is involved in planning, complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. The results were most pronounced in the older age-group, which suggests that meditation may offset age-related cortical thinning and therefore have a role in preventing dementias that are related to age-related volume loss. (3). Although the aim of this study was not specifically to study “chemobrain”, it is interesting to hypothesize that similar positive effects on cognitive processing may be seen in patients with cancer who meditate regularly.

Practicing insight meditation may prevent memory loss and improve cognitive processing.

And what about stress? The regions of the brain called the amygdala and caudate are associated with fear response and emotional regulation. A study on patients who practiced regular mindfulness showed decreased volume of the right amygdala and left caudate. This is associated with reduced stress reactivity and helps to illustrate the pathways that link mindfulness with the ability to better handle stress. (4)

Practicing mindfulness improves the stress response.

One thing I’ve always wished for my patients (and all people) is the ability to experience joy despite what might be viewed as negative circumstances. What if I told you that you could create the experience of joy using only internal stimulus of your brain’s reward system?  A type of meditation called Ecstatic Meditation (Jhana Altered State of Consciousness), a Buddhist technique which induces an altered state of consciousness with the short term goal of joy/happiness, was studied for this very purpose. This study used functional MRI imaging and EEG (neuroimaging techniques which show brain activity) to show that after an experienced meditator entered the state of jhana, there was activation in the nucleus accumbens in the brain, the brain’s reward center associated with motivation, pleasure, and reward/reinforcement. The practice induces extreme joy and shows activation in the dopamine reward system. (5)

Practicing Ecstatic meditation allows you to feel more joy.

The Bottom Line: What you practice is what you get.

If your mindfulness practice centers on growing your sense of loving compassion, your brain has the capacity to physically grow in the frontal lobe and thalamus, parts of your brain that handle positive emotion. If your practice focuses on experiencing joy, your brain can bulk up in the reward/joy center. You can focus your practice on the areas in which you would like to see growth or improvement, and likely, that is exactly what you will see.