Meditation holds hope for Alzheimer's in tiny, early study
By Carla McClain
Arizona Daily Star
(Picture Source: flickr.com)
For the first time, there is evidence that daily meditation appears to improve memory loss and may strengthen parts of the brain affected by Alzheimer's disease.
That has to be welcome news to the millions of Americans facing the threat of this brain-destroying disease — expected to strike in epidemic numbers among aging baby boomers in the coming decades.
However, experts warn that the study showing that meditation improved memory function and increased blood flow to vital areas of the brain lacked scientific controls and was too small to actually prove meditation can delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer's.
Even so, the preliminary findings are provocative — suggesting that a simple, inexpensive mind-body exercise with known health benefits may fortify our brains against mental decline as we age.
The results were presented this month at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference on the Prevention of Dementia in Washington, D.C. The study was funded by a Tucson-based foundation.
Practiced for centuries in ancient cultures — and now studied for its effects on human health — meditation, in its various forms, indeed has proved good for the body and the brain.
Studies show it can reduce stress and pain, ease depression, lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, increase attention, and promote stability in handling crises.
This is the first study to indicate positive effects on memory.
"What this research is showing is that it is possible to do something to build cognitive reserve — strengthen the brain, increase its capacity," said Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa, a Tucson doctor who practices integrative and mainstream medicine, focusing on preventing physical and mental decline in old age.
"The question now is whether building that reserve through meditation can slow down the Alzheimer's process, delay it for several years, perhaps even eliminate it. We think this leads in that direction. Further research will answer the question."
Singh Khalsa's Tucson-based foundation — the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation — funded the pilot study, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, of 20 people aged 52 to 70.
The patients were referred to the study by neurologists, due to complaints of memory loss or a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, a condition that can signal oncoming full-fledged Alzheimer's.
After training in a form of meditation known as Kirtan Kriya — described as the most widely practiced meditation in the Kundalini Yoga tradition — patients meditated for 12 minutes each day for eight weeks.
To measure their responses, they were given memory and neurologic tests before, during and after the study period. They also underwent brain-imaging scans — using Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography to measure blood flow — at the same intervals.
In reporting early results on six of the 20 patients, the study's chief researcher, University of Pennsylvania radiologist and psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Newberg, described "statistically significant" improvement in memory-test results for all six patients at the end of the study.
But the most impressive result, Newberg said, was a "dramatic" increase in blood flow to a region of the brain linked to learning and memory. Known as the posterior cingulate gyrus, it is the first area of the brain to decline in Alzheimer's patients.
"For the first time, we are seeing scientific evidence that meditation enables the brain to actually strengthen itself, and battle the processes working to weaken it," said Newberg, who directs Penn's Center for Spirituality and the Mind.
Though these are encouraging findings, the conclusions drawn by both Newberg and Singh Khalsa — that daily meditation should be recommended to delay or prevent cognitive decline — have triggered dissent from other researchers.
"This study is not showing us anything yet. Right now, there is just not enough evidence to recommend meditation for memory problems," said Alfred Kaszniak, head of psychology at the University of Arizona, who conducts research in both memory disorders and meditation, and treats memory-impaired and Alzheimer's patients.
Specifically, the study lacks a critical element of scientifically valid tests: comparison to a control group of patients who did not practice the meditation.
"Without that, you can't know if what is happening with these patients is anything more than just getting comfortable with their environment during the testing," Kaszniak said.
And even if the brain blood-flow results are valid — caused by the meditation — "we don't know if that is affecting memory or if it's just a temporary increase in metabolic activity in the brain," he said.
Also, no medical recommendations can be justified until the study results are reviewed by peer scientists and published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, he said.
Nevertheless, given what is now known about the beneficial effects of meditation, "the possibility that some particular meditation practice might improve memory functioning — even in those at risk for Alzheimer's disease — is certainly not far-fetched," said Kaszniak, who meditates daily but is not yet ready to prescribe it for memory-impaired patients.
Surprising to other longtime meditators in Tucson, the results of the meditation/memory study were indeed welcome, if valid, they said.
"That would absolutely be a great benefit, but this is the first time I've heard anything about meditation and Alzheimer's," said Terry Magee, who teaches at the Tucson Community Meditation Center.
Magee has practiced daily meditation for 12 years, and says she has used it to reduce stress, and ease the pain caused by her rheumatoid arthritis.
"It changes your relationship to stress, to what's going on around you. There is peace and clarity that develops, and I have a lot more energy than I used to," she said.
If nothing else, meditation's proven ability to ease chronic stress, an Alzheimer's risk factor, may indirectly protect against the disease's ravages.
Technorati: Buddhism Buddha Buddhist Dharma Compassion Wisdom Religion Meditation Zen Philosophy Spirituality Inspiration Peace Insight
“Sariputra, if there are people who have already made the vow, who now make the vow, or who are about to make the vow, ‘I desire to be born in Amitabha’s country,’ these people, whether born in the past, now being born, or to be born in the future, all will irreversibly attain to anuttarasamyaksambodhi. Therefore, Sariputra, all good men and good women, if they are among those who have faith, should make the vow, ‘I will be born in that country.’”
~ Amitabha Sutra
When I obtain the Buddhahood, any being of the boundless and inconceivable Buddha-worlds of the ten quarters whose body if be touched by the rays of my splendour should not make his body and mind gentle and peaceful, in such a state that he is far more sublime than the gods and men, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
~ Amitabha Buddha's Thirty-Third Vow
Saturday, June 23, 2007
Meditation holds hope for Alzheimer's in tiny, early study