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Mind Medicine

September 16, 2009
by Katherine Ellison

Scientists have launched the largest study to date on whether meditation can produce positive changes in the brain, right down to the molecular level.

At the Shambhala Mountain Center, a 600-acre Buddhist retreat nestled at 8,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, UC Davis neuroscientist Clifford Saron and his team were busy gathering what amounted to more than 2,300 hours of data from physiological tests and interviews. Ambling outside, smiling blissfully despite the chilly late-year winds, were a few of the research subjects themselves—members of a group totaling 64, from the United States, Thailand, the Netherlands, and points in between.

The scientists and their guinea pigs converged in this small valley just south of the Wyoming border, in a locale best known for the 108-foot-tall Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, a sacred Buddhist monument that is the largest of its kind in North America. For 3 months—from September to December—and for as many as 12 hours a day, participants paid some extraordinary attention to attention. They learned to focus on the flow of their breath, donning rubber skullcaps wired with dozens of electrodes to test their cognitive and emotional skills, while samples of their blood and saliva were periodically taken.

A researcher at the Center for Mind and brain, Saron and his crew—including the study’s contemplative director, B. Alan Wallace, a popular Buddhist author and former translator for the Dalai Lama—invested their time and more than $1 million in research funding. They examined whether meditation can lead to lasting changes in a subject’s well-being—changes visible right down to a person’s molecular makeup. Preliminary results show the intensive training did indeed improve performance, as compared with a control group, for both short-term and sustained attention, Saron says.

The study, called the Shamatha Project after a Tibetan school of meditation training, represents the most comprehensive research yet performed on the effect of meditation on the mind. The project turned a patch of semi-wilderness into ground zero for a new wave of Western enthusiasm with East Asian meditative practices, just as scientists at leading U.S. universities, including Berkeley, are beginning to focus on “positive” sentiments such as concentration, love, and compassion.

“Meditation has been demystified, to the point where it is now being studied very seriously by very serious scientists,” says Berkeley psychology professor Robert Levenson, a Shamatha Project consultant. In recent years, Levenson has carried out his own research into meditation, including blasting a French Buddhist monk with noise to gauge his startle reflex. (The reflex was there, Levenson reports, but significantly muted by some meditation techniques.)

There are several good reasons for the surge in interest in meditation as mental medicine. One is the recent progress in understanding how the brain can change over the course of a lifetime, a process called neuroplasticity. Our brains, we now know, are to a surprising extent what we make of them. Violinists, cab drivers, and jugglers have been shown to have gray matter adapted to their specific behaviors. And recent evidence suggests that people who train themselves simply to concentrate may achieve a similar effect. A study at Massachusetts General Hospital, for instance, found that parts of the cerebral cortex were thicker in people who had practiced 40 minutes of daily meditation for a year or more.

The Shamatha Project’s findings will be culled from 18 different cognitive and emotion-based tests performed during two 3-month retreats, in addition to more than 200 hours of personal interviews and the molecular analysis of all that blood and saliva. “It’s like building a skyscraper with your bare hands,” says the spectacled, bearded Saron.

Collaborations with cutting-edge researchers, including celebrated UCSF molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, heighten the project’s news-making potential. In Saron’s temporary lab at the Shambhala Center, I watched a researcher prepare a vial of white blood cells for Blackburn’s team, who will analyze whether sustained meditation may affect telomerase, an enzyme that has been shown to build up telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres can be worn down by psychological stress, a process implicated in several debilitating diseases as well as in aging. “We have good reason to believe that a sustained practice of stress reduction, such as meditation, can actually change the housekeeping activities of the immune cells,” says Elissa Epel, Blackburn’s research partner.

What relevance does this have for the working stiff who can’t find a free half-hour, never mind three months, to sit around and breathe? “We’re not expecting everyone to drop everything and meditate for three months,” Wallace assured me. “But we do think we can show that when people really devote themselves, meditation has big benefits. You can look to these people for models and inspiration, just like we look to our Olympic athletes in the world of sports.”

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