Research using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, at Harvard Medical School shows that for some people with depression, the brain patterns that occur with mindfulness meditation continue during other activities. That’s a promising discovery in the continuing efforts to explore options or complementary treatments for depression, along with psychotherapy or medication.
Harvard neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes demonstrated that changes in brain activity in subjects who have learned to meditate hold steady even when they’re not meditating. Desbordes took before-and-after scans of subjects who learned to meditate over the course of two months, including when they were performing everyday tasks.
The scans detected changes in brain activation patterns from the beginning to the end of the study, the first time such a change has been detected. The change was in the part of the brain called the amygdala, which is involved with experiencing emotions.
Standard Depression Treatments Don't Work for All
Scientists and mental health professionals continue to explore new treatments to address the troubling numbers of Americans struggling with depression. More than 16 million people per year have reported experiencing major depression, according to data from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. That’s nearly seven percent of all American adults.
One treatment found to be effective in treating depression is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, which teaches people to change negative patterns of thinking and, in turn, helps them regulate emotions and develop coping strategies.
“Individual cognitive behavioral therapy is helpful for many people,” said Benjamin Shapero, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who is collaborating with Desbordes on the MRI research.
“Antidepressant medications help many people,” said Shapero. But he said the challenge is that current treatments for depression don’t help everyone. “There’s a great need for alternative approaches,” he said.
MRI Findings about Mindfulness Meditation
In her research Desbordes does MRI scans before and after an eight-week course in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, or MBCT.
During the MRI scan, participants complete two tests. One focuses on becoming more aware of their heartbeat, which encourages body awareness.
The second test during the MRI asks the participants to think about what are considered negative or emotionally troubling phrases such as “I am such a loser” or “I can’t go on.”
Researchers monitor how fast the subjects can stop “ruminating,” which means to go over one through repeatedly. People suffering from depression often ruminate on troubling thoughts.
Desbordes’ findings about the brain patterns during mindfulness meditation continuing during other activities are preliminary. Now Desbordes will continue to study whether those changed brain patterns help depressed individuals more quickly disengage from negative thoughts, which means they would have more control over their ability to stop “ruminating.”
Mindfulness May Ease Depression Associated with Abuse
A study on mindfulness published in the medical journal The Lancet found that MBCT helped prevent the recurrence of depression as effectively as maintenance antidepressant medication.
The study also found that MBCT had a larger effect on people with histories of severe childhood abuse, which has been associated with a greater risk of relapse, than on participants overall.
"People at risk for depression are dealing with a lot of negative thoughts, feelings and beliefs about themselves and this can easily slide into a depressive relapse," said the Lancet study's lead author, Willem Kuyken, PhD, a professor at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. "MBCT helps them to recognize that's happening, engage with it in a different way, and respond to it with equanimity and compassion."
A study done for the Department of Veterans Affairs looked at the results of mindfulness on several types of psychological disorders. The study found that mindfulness has the most consistent effectiveness for depression, compared to other disorders such as substance abuse or sleep disturbances.
Try Mindfulness Meditation
Meditation is the practice of slowing down the mind, letting go of racing thoughts and focusing on breathing to observe inner experiences. Mindfulness is often referred to as “being in the moment.”
A regular routine of meditation can strengthen mindfulness, which is paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity, and acceptance. Meditation and mindfulness can help a person look at thoughts or experience feelings, acknowledge them, and let them go by.
A trained therapist can help a person develop a routine of meditation and mindfulness.
Here’s a link to a short relaxation meditation from the Harvard Center for Health and Wellness. Try it and see what results you get, and if it encourages you to incorporate more meditation and mindfulness into you own life.
Powell, Alvin, “When Science Meets Mindfulness,” Harvard Gazette, April 9, 2018
Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Understand the Facts - Depression,” 2018
Lu, Stacy, “Mindfulness Holds Promise for Treating Depression,” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, 2015
Relaxation Room, David S. Rosenthal Center for Health and Wellness Promotion, Harvard University Health Services, 2018