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Study will see if calm mind can mean healthy body

A new study is under way at Emory testing the value of meditation in helping people cope with stress. The Compassion and Attention Longitudinal Meditation Study (CALM) will help scientists determine how people’s bodies, minds and hearts respond to stress, and which specific meditation practices are better at turning down those responses.

“Anything that affects the normal functioning and integrity of the body tends to activate a part of the immune system that’s called inflammation,” says Charles Raison, associate professor in Emory’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and principal investigator of the study.

“Inflammation includes processes that the immune system uses to deal with virus or bacteria, or anything foreign and dangerous,” says Raison, clinical director of the Emory Mind-Body Program. “Data show that people who practice meditation may reduce their inflammatory and behavioral responses to stress, which are linked to serious illnesses including cancer, depression and heart disease.”

Raison and principal contemplative investigator, Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, senior lecturer in the Department of Religion, collaborated on a 2005 study at Emory showing that college students who regularly practiced compassion meditation had a significant reduction in stress and physical responses to stress. Negi, who is president and spiritual director of Drepung Loseling Monastery, designed the compassion meditation practices.

The success of the initial study led the pair to embark on the expanded protocol for adults

The CALM study has three different components.

The main component, which is funded by a federal grant, is called the “Mechanisms of Meditation.” This aspect of the study compares compassion meditation with two other interventions — mindfulness training and a series of health-related lectures. Participants are randomized into one of the three interventions.

A second component involves the use of an electronically activated recorder (called the “EAR”) that is worn by the participants before beginning and after completion of the meditation interventions.

The recorder will be used to evaluate the effect of the study interventions on the participants’ social behavior by periodically recording bits and pieces of ambient sounds from participants’ daily lives.

The third component involves neuroimaging of the participants to determine if compassion meditation and mindfulness meditation have different effects on brain architecture and the function of empathic pathways of the brain.

Secular compassion meditation is based on a thousand-year-old Tibetan Buddhist mind-training practice called “lojong.” Lojong uses a cognitive, analytic approach to challenge a person’s unexamined thoughts and emotions toward other people, with the long-term goal of developing altruistic emotions and behavior toward all people.

Mastering meditation takes dedication and time.

“Meditation is not just about sitting quietly,” says Negi. “Meditation is a process of familiarizing, cultivating or enhancing certain skills, and you can think of attentiveness and compassion as skills.

“Meditation practices designed to foster compassion may impact physiological pathways that are modulated by stress and relevant to disease.”

Raison and Negi hope to show that centuries of wisdom about the inner mind and how to nurture it, combined with Western science about how the body and brain interact, will be tremendously helpful to humanity, personal well-being and health.

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