MADISON – In the mid-20th Century, new evidence showed that the brain could be “plastic,”and that experience could create changes in the brain. Plasticity has been linked to learning new skills, including spatial navigation, aerobic exercise and balance training.
Yet it’s remained an open question if mindfulness interventions, like meditation, can alter the brain’s structure. Some research using the well-known eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course indeed suggested so. However, this study was limited in scope and technology and perhaps skewed by elective participant pools.
In new research, a team from the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, led by Richard J. Davidson, found no evidence of structural brain changes with short-term mindfulness training.
Published May 20 in Science Advances, the team’s study is the largest and most rigorously controlled to date. In two novel trials, over 200 healthy participants with no meditation experience or mental health concerns were given MRI exams to measure their brains prior to being randomly assigned to one of three study groups: the eight-week MBSR course, a non-mindfulness-based well-being intervention called the Health Enhancement Program (HEP), or a control group that didn’t receive any type of training.
The MBSR course was taught by certified instructors and included mindfulness practices such as yoga, meditation and body awareness. The HEP course was developed as an activity that is similar to MBSR but without mindfulness training. Instead, HEP engaged participants in exercise, music therapy and nutrition practices. Both groups spent additional time in practice at home.
Following each eight-week trial, all participants were given a final MRI exam to measure changes in brain structure. Data from the two trials were pooled to create a large sample size. No significant differences in structural brain changes were detected between MBSR and either control group.