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Can Meditation Change Your Brain And Affect Your Genes?

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In last week's blog, Susan Smalley, Ph.D., founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA, shared with us her fascinating journey. After 25 years as a research scientist, she experienced a personal challenge that changed her life and eventually led her to founding MARC.

PF: Sue, What was going through your mind as you contemplated going back to UCLA?

As I was thinking about going back to UCLA, Patricia, it became kind of a mission to go back and share what I learned with others. I wanted to be able to share it with people who might not be necessarily open to these ways of looking inward. I was interested in exploring how we open up the intuitive side of all of these scientists on campus. Of course there are plenty of brilliant scientists who are intuitive. Clearly, everybody has the capacity for both (reason and intuition), and there are varying degrees of both. At UCLA, like any business, there is a lot of emphasis on productivity and less on reflection...

So I started looking at the science on mindfulness and meditation and found that there was a ton of information. It became a really interesting area of research for me. I was looking for a way to frame it and figure out how we could present it at an institution.

PF: So how did you get started?

SS: I found other like-minded people. Dr. Dan Siegel, Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, Dr. Lidia Zylowska, Dr. Lobsang Rapgay, some post docs and other faculty helped get things started. Dr. Peter Whybrow, the Director of the Semel Institute was very supportive of the creation of MARC as was Dr. Michael Irwin, the Director of the Norman Cousin's Center of Psychoneuroimmunology - a center dedicated to research of the mind-body connection.

With all of the support we were able to launch the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) in 2006. We were able to hire an extraordinary teacher, Diana Winston, a 20-year mindfulness practitioner/instructor who could teach mindfulness in a secular setting. Diana was enthusiastic about bringing mindfulness to the Western world through classes and workshops at our Institute.

We started teaching classes to the public. Eventually we remodeled a room within the Semel Institute dedicated to such programs.

PF: What classes is this room used for?

SS: The room, which we call the "C" space, opened in February 2008 for UCLA Faculty and Staff to use for meditation purposes or to participate in free classes in yoga, tai-chi, qi gong, and mindfulness.

PF: Why do you call the room the "C" space?

SS: It happens to be on the "C" floor! When I had that experience of heightened awareness that I shared earlier, I became aware that creativity initiates a kind of an awareness of our connectedness and that leads to compassion. So we have the three c's :creativity, connectedness, compassion, and we threw calmness in there, too.

PF: Nice. So the MARC classes take place in a meditation room called the C Space.

SS: Yes, all day long the room is in use. Either a class is in session, or it's quiet and you can go in and meditate. During the day, it's for faculty and staff, and at night, we use the room for public classes.

We put a library in it as well, with books that are not the typical medical textbooks - from William James to Thich Nhat Hahn to Alan Watts to philosophers, poets, and books of inspiration.

PF: What I find particularly impressive about the space is that you have support for the often overworked, overstressed, and overlooked medical faculty and staff, as well as the general public.

SS: I think that element is what sets MARC apart from most other mindfulness centers. Most are targeted out to the community. MARC is targeted to both the community at large and inward to those on campus. The medical doctors, psychologists, medical staff, the faculty and staff within UCLA who may be stressed may reap the benefits of a moment of relaxation and meditation because it's right under their nose.

PF: Is MARC being well received?

SS: Very well received and interest keeps growing. We have an area on our website where people can download mindfulness meditations for free, and we get a lot of hits on it every day. In fact, the Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health has put our meditations on their internal website for their own staff and faculty. We have also taught our mindfulness classes in corporate settings, including Sony Pictures here in Culver City.

PF: What are some of the goals and visions for MARC?

SS: Our primary goal is education and research.

Our center is committed to teach practices that are secular and have empiric scientific research backing their wellness benefits and to teach them by well qualified people.

I'm sure we will add other methods that enhance mindfulness, like various other forms of meditation (in addition to mindfulness meditation) as well as some forms of yoga and even self-hypnosis.

We want to offer a host of different kinds of practices, all with scientific support, well-trained instructors, and taught in a secular fashion.

PF: What are some interesting areas of research for mindfulness?

Mike Irwin's group is doing a lot of research on the neurobiology and the immune changes associated with mindfulness. They've written several interesting papers on the topic. A recent study by David Creswell, a research scientist who worked in Mike Irwin's group, used a self-report questionnaire that measures how mindful you are - as a trait in the population.

Then they studied brain function and its relationship to these mindfulness scores - how do people that are very highly mindful vs. not so mindful differ in brain function?

They used an fMRI scan (functional magnetic resonance imaging) during what is called an affect labeling task. So they had people do this task where they have to label someone's emotional expression (e.g. fearful or surprised). There are certain parts of the brain that are known to be involved in doing that task, particularly the prefrontal cortex modulating the emotional center which is the amygdala. When they did this study they found that the more mindful people were, the more activity in the frontal cortex quieting down the emotional center.

In other studies, mindfulness is shown to change brain activity and even structure with practice. For example, Sara Lazar's research found that the structure of parts of the brain differed in long-time meditators compared to non-meditators. There are now many studies supporting brain changes with various sorts of meditation, including mindfulness meditation.

PF: Are you speaking about neuroplasticity?

SS: Yes, the capacity of the brain to change as a function of experience. And as a geneticist, I'm really interested in epigenetic phenomenon, that is, the capacity of our genes to change in their expression as a function of experience. Meditation seems to do that as well! There is one really great study where a set of about 15 genes were shown to differ (in expression) as function of a type of meditation. Those genes are ones involved in the stress response. And I'm sure there will be more studies like that.

What's really cool about that, from my background in genetics, is that it illustrates that a mind state that we can self-induce can regulate gene expression - turn gene expression up or down.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence about mindfulness that I think is sufficient today to say: Try it, it's likely beneficial, harmless, free, and relatively simple.

PF: Now that MARC has taken off, what is your role at the Center?

SS: I continue to help the Center grow and am working to build a broader Wellness Center within the Semel Institute to be able to house programs like MARC that not only do research but carry out community outreach. We'd love to see a beautiful new space to house such a center where people can learn about the science of the brain and how it influences behavior, along with offering many tools for improving health and well-being, like mindfulness practices. I'm helping to move that project forward in any way I can as a faculty member.

I'm very much focused on this educational arm. I'm passionate about translating the science of mindfulness to the public, helping people understand that self awareness and these tools of self awareness can be really beneficial to humanity and to the promotion of mental and physical health, helping us relate to one another in kinder ways. I feel like I've learned so much from my research and other people's research and that I can explain it. Right now, I'm spending a lot of time writing and speaking about the science of mindfulness.

PF: Wow, your personal story and the research and application of mindfulness is beyond fascinating. Sue, I certainly hope you're writing a book about all of this!

SS: I am co-writing it with Diana Winston. It's called Fully Present: The Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness and it's coming out in the Spring or Summer of 2010 (DaCapo Publishing).

PF: This is very exciting and a great contribution to humankind that will help so many people. Thanks for taking the time for this interview and we look forward to hearing the developments of MARC. Hopefully you will keep us up to date on your blogs on Huffington Post.

SS: Thanks Patricia. It's great to meet someone so enthusiastic about bridging the divide between Western Medicine and Eastern Arts as well, and helping to promote self-awareness as a key to happiness.

Website links:

MARC website: http://marc.ucla.edu
Click here for mindfulness meditations from MARC that you can listen to or download (free)
Sue's website: www.suesmalley.com

Here's a link to an interesting study related to how yoga and meditation can change our gene expression: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/113735.php

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