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Mindfulness Meditation: How It Works In The Brain

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Mindfulness may be so successful in helping with a range of conditions, from depression to pain, by working as a sort of "volume knob" for sensations, according to a new review of studies from Brown University researchers.

In their paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the researchers proposed that mindfulness meditation works by enabling a person to have better control over brain processing of pain and emotions.

Specifically, the researchers postulate that mindfulness meditation plays a role in the controlling of cortical alpha rhythms, which have been shown in brain imaging studies to play a role in what senses our bodies and minds pay attention to.

"We think we're the first group to propose an underlying neurophysiological mechanism that directly links the actual practice of mindful awareness of breath and body sensations to the kinds of cognitive and emotional benefits that mindfulness confers," study researcher Catherine Kerr, an assistant professor of family medicine and director of translational neuroscience for the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University, said in a statement.

Previous research has shown that mindfulness meditation could have a positive effect on the brain by decreasing the density of the grey matter in the brain's amygdala, which is a brain region known for its role in stress. That study was conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers and published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging in 2011.

And in another study, University of Oregon researchers found that mindfulness meditation -- particularly a kind called integrative body-mind training -- is linked with an increase in the brain's signaling connections (called axonal density), as well as the protective tissue that surrounds the brain's axons.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated meditation's effect on the grey matter density of the amygdala. It has been shown to decrease the grey matter of this brain region, not increase it.

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