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Mindfulness, brain and immune function

New psychology research has used brain scans, EEG, and measured antibody production, to reveal the biological processes that underlie the positive changes that people experience after practicing mindfulness meditation as part of psychological therapy.

How mindfulness therapy may alter brain and immune function

Anecdotal evidence for the positive effects of meditation on people’s physical and mental health is strong: many report that practicing meditation regularly makes them feel healthier and more emotionally stable. This is one factor that has led to a rise in the use of mindfulness being increasingly used in psychological therapy to treat a range of emotional health problems such as anxiety, stress and depression.

Mindfulness has been integrated with elements of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to form Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (M-CBT), which aims to teach individuals to observe thoughts and emotions without judgement, accepting them instead of reacting to them in a potentially negative or destructive way.

Mindfulness as a form of psychological therapy has now become quite widespread in the UK. Indeed the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) positively recommends it for people who have experienced three or more major episodes of depression.

Mindfulness may increase immune function

A biological basis for mindfulness?

Psychology researchers at the University of Wisconsin decided to look into the biological basis for these suggestions that mindfulness is associated with physical and emotional well-being: are these positive outcomes due to something very real being triggered in the brains and immune systems of mindfulness practitioners, or are they subject to placebo effects, merely feeling better because they expect to?

To answer this question, they recruited 25 participants to be trained for 8 weeks in mindfulness therapy techniques at work, comparing them to 16 colleagues who received no intervention and acted as controls. The mindfulness training that the experimental group received was similar to that which can be found in many psychotherapy settings, such as here at The House Partnership.

EEG brain scans were used to measure neurological electrical activity before, immediately after, and finally 4 months after this mindfulness training. Also, after the training was complete, participants were given an influenza vaccination, and blood samples were taken to measure the levels of antibodies produced in response to this low-level immune threat.

Rapid positive changes–Brain and Antibodies

For the first time, these researchers were able to report some very interesting changes in the way that our brains and bodies seem to function after practicing mindfulness.

  • The EEG readings showed increased left anterior activation in the group who had received training. There’s good evidence that this part of the brain is associated with positive affect–heightened activity here makes us feel happy and positive.
  • In addition, the mindfulness group produced more antibodies in response to the influenza vaccine, which is indicative of increased immune function.

If the influenza that they were exposed to was genuine, and not an attenuated form, perhaps this group may have not become as ill, or may have returned to good health quicker than their colleagues.

A tangible connection between mind and body

But perhaps the most suggestive result was the connection between changes in the brain and the body that mindfulness seems to bring about–the magnitude of increase in left anterior activation was closely associated with the magnitude of antibody production. People with the most EEG activation were also those producing more antibodies. What remains to be seen is whether this was a case of causation or simple correlation.

So, it seems that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy’s popularity in psychotherapy settings might be well-deserved–the changes it leads to in the way that our brains and immune systems work turn out to be very real. Moreover, these striking results were brought about with only two months’ training, which suggests that through mindfulness therapy, people might feel positive improvements quite quickly.

The House Partnership, 21st June 2015

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