Research on mindfulness and mice featured in New York Times

Cris Niell

It might be time to add another benefit to the list of things meditation can do for a person. It can already reduce stress, improve concentration and lead to a faster metabolism — enough to be easily considered a generally “healthy” activity.

And now researchers at the UO are saying it could actually change a person’s body at a cellular level, leading to more white matter — the tissue that facilitates communication between different parts of the brain — in the part of the brain that helps regulate emotions.

Neuroscientists are trying to confirm this by studying the brains of mice. Using light to turn neurons of the mice on and off, they were able to place them in a meditation-like state. They exposed each mouse to 30 minutes of light, which is similar to the amount of time humans spent meditating in earlier studies.

Afterward, the meditated mice were calmer than those who didn’t receive the light therapy — they spent more time in the lighted part of their cage than their counterparts, which is a technique used to measure stress levels in rodents. Future studies plan to look at what exactly is happening at a biological level in the brains of the subjects.

Cristopher Niell, a neuroscientist at the UO who was involved in the study, said the purpose was to find out if meditation can alter the physical structure of the brain. If so, it might eventually be possible to use alternative therapies that would help people with anxiety or whose brains don’t respond well to medication.

Furthermore, if meditation changes the brain, then it is possible that exercise,  hunger or other mental and physical states do as well. “We want to understand the biological underpinnings of brain states and plasticity itself,” Niell said.

For more, see “Of Mice and Mindfulness” in The New York Times.