Meditation May Help Slow Progression Of Alzheimer's Disease
November 19, 2013

Meditation May Help Slow Progression Of Alzheimer’s Disease

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The biological changes and stress-level reduction caused by meditation could help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease or other age-related neurodegenerative conditions, researchers from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) in Boston claim in a recently-published pilot study.

“We know that approximately 50 percent of people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment – the intermediate stage between the expected declines of normal aging and the more serious cognitive deterioration associated with dementia – may develop dementia within five years,” first author Rebecca Erwin Wells, a neurologist at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, said in a statement Monday.

“Unfortunately, we know there are currently no FDA approved medications that can stop that progression,” she added. “We also know that as people age, there's a high correlation between perceived stress and Alzheimer's disease, so we wanted to know if stress reduction through meditation might improve cognitive reserve.”

Wells, who conducted this research while at BIDMC and Harvard Medical School, studied adults between the ages of 55 and 90, including 14 who had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. Each subject was randomly placed in one of two groups: one that participated in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) using meditation and yoga, and one that received only normal care and served as a control group.

The MBSR group met two hours per week for a total of eight weeks, and they also participated in one all-day mindfulness retreat. Furthermore, each of the MBSR participants were encouraged to continue practicing at home for between 15 and 30 minutes each day.

All study participants were given functional MRI (fMRI) scans both at the beginning of the study and at the end of the eight-week period in order to determine whether or not there were any changes to their brain structure or brain activity. The results of the study were published online October 10 in the journal Neuroscience Letters.

“We were particularly interested in looking at the default mode network (DMN) – the brain system that is engaged when people remember past events or envision the future, for example – and the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for emotions, learning and memory – because the hippocampus is known to atrophy as people progress toward mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease,” Wells explained.

Previously published research has demonstrated that the hippocampus is activated during mediation, and that those who participate in the activity tend to have increased hippocampal gray matter concentration levels. So Wells and her colleague set out to determine whether MBSR could be used to slow the cognitive decay of those individuals who were already experiencing some age-related memory issues.

The fMRI scans revealed that those individuals who participated in MBSR had “significantly improved functional connectivity” in the DMN regions of the brain, and while both groups experienced atrophy of the hippocampus, there was less observed in those who actively participated in meditation, the researchers reported.

“This is a small study and more research is needed to further investigate these results, but we're very excited about these findings because they suggest that MBSR may reduce hippocampal atrophy and improve functional connectivity in the same areas of the brain most affected by Alzheimer's disease,” Wells said.

“MBSR is a relatively simple intervention, with very little downside that may provide real promise for these individuals who have very few treatment options,” she added. “If MBSR can help delay the symptoms of cognitive decline even a little bit, it can contribute to improved quality of life for many of these patients.”