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An oasis of peace in “the 500 channel universe”: Research on mindfulness and depression

1135112859_45dc222725_zEarlier this month, the American Psychological Association issued a feature on mindfulness and depression, highlighting research that suggests mindfulness is an effective way to ameliorate and treat mood disorders, particularly recurrent depression. Some of the featured research suggests a strong neurological basis for the association.

Zindel Segal, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Toronto who is quoted in the article and who was on the three-person team that created Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), wonders if all the attention mindfulness is now receiving is part of a backlash against "the 500 channel universe" of distractions in modern society. It's not a pill that can be taken and done with, though - it's a restructuring of mental attitude that requires maintenance. Through MBCT, people learn to pay attention to sensations and feelings rather than evaluative thoughts.

The studies in the review suggest that MBCT works at least as well as medication to prevent recurrence, that it is effective for peri-natal depression, and that it may work especially well for people with histories of relapse or depression stemming from childhood. A brief prepared for the Department of Veterans Affairs found that mindfulness approaches were most effective against depression compared to other health conditions.

I found the neuroscience particularly interesting: Part of the reason for MBCT's effectiveness may be that practicing mindfulness increases connectivity and tissue density in certain areas of the brain. This is a classic example of neuroplasticity - the idea that neurological pathways can adapt and change throughout one's life.

Norman Farb, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, distinguishes two forms of self-reference that activate different areas of the brain: extended/narrative self-reference, which links experiences across time, and momentary/experiential self-reference, which is centered on the present. Mindfulness exercises emphasize the present, in contrast with destructive narrative patterns of thought common in those suffering from stress, anxiety, and depression. In Farb's study, fMRI results show that regular mindfulness practice strengthens areas of the brain that focus on the moment. It suggests that although we habitually integrate these two forms of self-reference, they can be neurally dissociated through attentional training.

Neural differences may have effects even when someone is not actively engaging in mindfulness: A study led by Veronique Taylor at the University of Montreal showed that the experienced meditators has less activity in narrative self-referential areas than novice meditators even in a resting state. Another study led by Harvard University neuroscientist Sara Lazar, PhD, showed that over the course of an 8-week mindfulness stress reduction program, the gray matter in participants' amygdala shrank in density, while density increased in areas related to sustained attention and emotion regulation. The amygdala is implicated in anxiety as well as depression, which correlates with the finding that the participants' stress levels decreased.

According to the feature, Segal has been impressed with the dramatic rise in popularity of meditation over the past 20 years, which "resonates with people's desires to find a way of slowing down and returning to an inner psychological reality that is not as easily perturbed," he says. Perhaps most encouragingly, mindfulness practice has no adverse side-effects or contraindications, so I would expect to see more research into its efficacy, which could be good for all of us in our "500 channel universe."

Previously: Mindfulness training may ease depression and improve sleep for both caregivers and patients, Using mindfulness-based programs to reduce stress and promote health, Using mindfulness therapies to treat veterans' PTSD, How mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health and Study shows mindfulness may reduce cancer patients' anxiety and depression.
Photo by ronsho

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