Andrew Newberg

Meditation, memory loss, Alzheimer’s and aging

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Gordon Richman, WASHINGTON, November 12, 2012 – Alzheimer’s is devastating and terrifying. Our grandparents are fighting it now, our parents preparing to fight it, and we know that we’re next. A recent bittersweet  NPR piece explained that in order for most currently-conceived Alzheimer’s drugs to work effectively, patients would have to start treatment early— up to 20 years early.

Most of us, as much as we fear Alzheimer’s, don’t want to take a cocktail of drugs for something that may or may not happen in 20 years. Although there are brilliant scientists and physicians working on helping people with Alzheimer’s (and those who might suffer from it in the future), most of this is theoretical. Fortunately, there are some fairly innocuous, easy and relatively inexpensive things older and middle aged people can do to fight memory loss. One of those things is the opposite of a modern miracle drug—it’s a health practice that’s over 5000 years old. That practice is meditation.

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Earlier this year, the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital released a very interesting study. According to Medical News Today, the study showed that meditation can indeed help with memory loss. 15 older adults meditated for 12 minutes a day for 8 weeks, and the results were remarkable. Blood flow increased in key areas of the brain, and cognitive function improved as well. They were less depressed, less stressed and less confused. They were holding on to their memories.

Older people often become depressed and detached as their lives change, and as the world changes around them. Modern Western society is moving in unexpected directions, and it’s doing so at an alarming rate— a rate that some seniors have a hard time keeping up with. All of that stress, confusion and depression can add up to apathy and despair, which can lead to lack of mental engagement and activity. That engagement deficiency is unhealthy for several reasons, but it can also contribute to Alzheimer’s. Meditation is all about nurturing your mind and moving you away from negativity. It makes sense, then, that meditation can fight against Alzheimer’s and improve overall health.

In a Huffington Post piece from last year, Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa put it succinctly, “…  This cutting-edge [neuroscience] research showed that stress, through the release in the body of a hormone called cortisol, could kill brain cells by the millions and lead to memory loss similar to Alzheimer’s disease. For me, this was an epiphany. I remember thinking that, if stress could cause memory loss, then why couldn’t anti-stress techniques, such as meditation, stop it from happening?”


Some people, young, old or middle aged, refuse to try meditation. They think it’s a “new age” practice left to those who wear strange clothing and hold séances with their dogs. Meditation is actually good for just about everyone— it can help with stress, depression, anxiety, blood pressure and cholesterol. It’s free, it feels good and it doesn’t take much time out of the day. Those are huge selling points, especially for the suspicious. The biggest struggle in using meditation as a treatment for current and future Alzheimer’s patients might be getting them to actually try it. What sounds better, though—years of expensive pills or years of quiet, relaxed mindfulness?

If Dr. Khalsa and the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital are correct, it might only take minutes out of our day to fight a debilitating condition. The key, then, to utilizing meditation in the fight against memory loss is in building a daily routine.


The secret to successful meditation is to include it in a daily routine. Similarly, the key to successfully engaging your mind also lies in the realm of consistency. Older people, especially those who are retired, should have no problem adding meditation to their daily lives. Meditation, coupled with some regular social interaction, light exercise and other inexpensive, non-invasive techniques (such as Music for Memory are a gentle way to curb and reverse memory loss. They’re pleasant, productive and healthy—and they also don’t rely on expensive medications.

For middle aged people, finding a routine might be more difficult at first. The trick is finding about 15 minutes of uninterrupted time, preferably first thing in the morning, to sit down to meditate. There are many different meditation techniques available to suit any number of different personalities and preferences. The important thing is that it’s done daily.

Know that meditation is not for other people—it will work for you, and it can help you, especially if you’re worried about memory loss. It also doesn’t ask for anything in return. It’s there when you need it, and it will be ready when you are.

There will continue to be scientific breakthroughs in the realm of Alzheimer’s studies, but one surefire method has already been proven. Meditation might not be an instant cure-all, but it does help and it doesn’t pose any harmful side effects. Alzheimer’s is devastating, but it’s comforting to know that meditation works and that we don’t yet understand its full potential.

The Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine’s Dr. Andrew Newberg is extremely hopeful. Speaking with Medical News Today, he said, “This study is one of a growing body of neuroimaging studies to illustrate the neurological and biological impact of meditation, highlighting brain regions that regulate attention control, emotional states, and memory. It is a first step in understanding the neurophysiologic impact of this and similar meditative practices.”

We can take the first step anytime we’re ready.

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Study shows how prayer, meditation affect brain activity

Katie Harmer, Deseret News: How do prayer and meditation affect brain activity? Dr. Andrew Newberg, MD, is the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomson Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College, and he has studied the neuroscientific effect of religious and spiritual experiences for decades.

In a video that recently aired on “Through the Wormhole” narrated by Morgan Freeman on the TV channel Science, Dr. Newberg explains that to study the effect of meditation and prayer on the brain, he injects his subjects with a harmless radioactive dye while they are deep in prayer / meditation. The dye migrates to the parts of the brain where the blood flow is the strongest, i.e,. to the most active part of the brain.

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Meditating on how the Iceman warmeth

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Dr. Dustin Ballard, Marin Independent Journal: The mind has incredible powers. It can create illusions out of thin air and hear voices that don’t exist. It can modify the body’s response to pain, disease and stress. It can eliminate symptoms simply through the power of belief.

The mind is powerful, but is it capable of regulating bodily temperature? Wim Hof of the Netherlands, known to some as “the Iceman,” would have us believe that it is.

When I first learned of Wim from my neighborhood YMCA Zennie, I was quite skeptical. I remained unconvinced after skimming through his recently released and quite disjointed book, “Becoming the Iceman.” But as I have searched the web (and, by the web, I mean YouTube) and the medical literature, my skepticism has softened greatly. More on that in a moment — but first — about the Iceman.

Wim Hof is 52 years old and, like many of us middle-agers, he has flat and thinning hair and wears shorts that ride higher than warranted. But unlike most others (middle-aged or not) on the planet, he can mute his body’s response to extremely cold temperature. If you don’t believe me, pull up some of the videos — they are remarkable.

But for those who might be experiencing a Comcast moment without connectivity (I’m not the only one, am I?), let me expound.

The Iceman, whose stated profession is “world record breaker,” has completed each of the following cold, hard stunts:

• He’s stood fully immersed in 700 pounds ice for one hour and 42 minutes.

• He’s hiked to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet) in two days wearing only shorts.

• He’s completed a full marathon in similar attire in temperatures averaging about 4 degrees below zero.

I think we can all agree that these are not feats for the average weekend warrior and may be unnecessarily masochistic. Wim, however, finds them therapeutic.

“Cold is a warm friend,” he says.

Yes, cold is nice — for ice cream and popsicles — but how does someone stay submerged in ice for almost two hours without damage?

Scientists who have studied Wim’s response to cold temperatures are amazed. Says one in a TED video: “He is a physiological mystery.” Incredibly, Wim can maintain a stable core body temperature for nearly an hour while submerged in ice — a trick that you would absolutely not want to try at home. And, his heart rate and breathing also stay stable — once again not the expected response.

So, something about the Iceman is different. Perhaps it is his lifetime of acclimatization to cold temperatures or maybe it is because he is a genetic anomaly. Or maybe, just maybe, it is because he is an alien from the planet Neptune. Or, perhaps, as Wim asserts, it is because his mind has mastered his body through meditation.

It’s called Tummo meditation, and it is an ancient practice of Buddhist Monks. Thirty years ago, a study by Dr. Herbert Benson and others, published in Nature reported the bodily responses of Indo-Tibetan yogis practicing this technique who demonstrated remarkable changes in the temperature of their fingers and toes (up to 17 degrees) in a cold environment. Later, the same team produced videos of Tibetan monks drying frigid wet sheets with their own body heat.

So, it seems possible to alter the brain’s autonomic nervous system by merely focusing the mind. How this works, from a physiology standpoint, remains a mystery.

We do know that many creatures, including snails and bees, can regulate their body temperature. This fact suggests that an ancient area of the brain — such as the hypothalamus — is involved.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University in Pennsylvania and the author of a study on cerebral blood flow during meditation, summarizes the science of the question like so:

“It is known that meditation, including Tummo, can have profound effects on the autonomic nervous system that regulates body metabolism, temperature, etc. So while I am not sure if there has been any systematic study other than some old studies, it is reasonable to postulate that people can regulate body temperature and metabolism through meditation practices. Further, it is not just increased metabolism, but sometimes a decreased metabolism that allows for a conservation of energy in the body. This might allow the body to function at a broader range of temperatures. However, a lot of this is speculation.”

What also is speculation is how the Iceman can effectively practice the Tummo technique while in motion — such as when attempting to climb Mount Everest in shorts (he made it to almost 25,000 feet).

What is not in doubt, however, is the power of the mind and the wonderful irony that for many of us what often limits the power of mind is its preference for the status quo. You might say that the greatest impediment to the mind is the mind itself.

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Scans show more brain activity when people meditate

People who pray, meditate and perform religious rituals show considerably more activity in their brain’s frontal lobe during these activities than when the brain is at rest, a scientist has found.

Andrew Newberg from the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College in the US is a proponent of neurotheology, which tries to study the relationship between the brain and religion.

Newberg studied the brain activity of experienced Tibetan Buddhists before and during meditation, reports the Daily Mail.

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He found an increase of activity in the meditators’ frontal lobe, responsible for focusing attention and concentration, during meditation. He attributes the change to the effects of their religious experience, a statement of Thomas Jefferson University said.

However, it is just as likely that the scans are another example of what happens when people meditate, rather than any religious link.

Neurotheology has come under fierce attack from other academics in the past who say it is not rigorous enough in its studies and that theology and science should not be linked in this way.

It is not the first time that brain activity and meditation have been studied.

Last month, a study at the University of Oregon found that people who meditate can strengthen their brain. Meditation novices took part in brain-training meditation sessions for half an hour on weekdays for a month.

Another group received the same amount of tuition – 11 hours in basic relaxation techniques.

Brain scans revealed the brain connections of those in the meditation group – but not the other group – started to strengthen after six hours’ practice. Differences were clear after 11 hours.

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Andrew Newberg to direct studies in integrative medicine

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Trishula Patel, Philadelphia Inquirer: Andrew Newberg, 44, has been named director of research at the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine, a spokesman announced Friday. He leaves the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine after having served as an associate professor of psychiatry and radiology for the last seven years. Newberg, who hails from Bryn Mawr, spoke with Inquirer staff writer Trishula Patel.

Question: Why are you leaving Penn? What opportunities do you see at Jefferson that you couldn’t pursue at Penn?

Answer: As much as I’ve enjoyed doing research at Penn, my real passion and love is in the field of alternative medicine, and the more specific practice of meditation and other spiritual practices and how they relate to health care. I was able to pursue my research on complementary medicine on the side at Penn, but at Jefferson I can now make it my primary work.

Integrative medicine includes everything from traditional to alternative therapies. If you need antibiotics, we’ll give you those, but if it’s dietary changes that will be the best for you, we can help with that, too.

Q: What will the Myrna Brind Center become known for under your leadership?

A: There are two main things: the first is to make the center the premier research facility and program for the study of integrative medicine. The other is to expand on the research I’ve been doing over the past two decades. It’s important to look at the mechanisms and biology of what’s going on with integrative therapy, and not just use acupuncture to alleviate pain, but understand why it helps too.

Q: A lot of money has been spent on alternative medicine trials and some would argue that we haven’t seen much gain from it. How will you change that?

A: Obviously when looking at research dollars, we have to make sure they’re distributed properly. I also think what happens often is that we forget about the patient in all these big trials. We need to understand an individual not just on a biological level, but on a social and spiritual level too.

And so many of these integrative therapies are actually very cheap. If we can work with something simple, we don’t need to spend billions on treatments that have no effect. This will be useful especially when it comes to disorders where there aren’t treatments, like irritable bowel syndrome; integrative therapy may be the best treatment.

Q: Tell me about the study of neurotheology, which you used in the title of your recent book.

A: It’s a very exciting field that, simply put, is the study of the intersection between religious phenomena and the human brain. On the neurological side, there’s neuroscience, the study of effects on the body, and ultimately overall health. On the theological side, there are all the aspects of religion and spiritual phenomena.

The question then is, how do we bring them together to help us better understand who we are as people? Ultimately, the brain is a very important player in religious practices, and trying to understand this relationship is the key to understanding the nature of our whole existence.

Q: What happens to the brain during spiritual practices like meditation? How is this beneficial for our health?

A: We’ve found a very large number of changes that go on in the brain during meditation and prayer – a whole network of structures that appear to become active depending on what the person is actually doing. The simple answer is that when one engages in these practices, activating different parts of the brain, it improves the efficiency and function of the brain. People have reported remembering better and thinking clearer, and this helps with cognition and emotional health. In turn, it affects the body by lowering the level of stress, which in turn lowers stress hormones, which then lowers blood pressure.. . .

So it translates back into an overall healthier person, provided it is something that works for the person. You can’t tell someone to pray in one way if they don’t want to, or if they don’t understand, or if it conflicts with prevailing religious or spiritual beliefs.

Q: Do you meditate daily?

A: I don’t have a formal practice to what I do. As I pushed myself to try and find the answers to the big philosophical questions as I grew up, it became more of an internal contemplative process where, as I began to ponder those questions, I was able to derive a much better understanding of what people mean when they say they had a mystical experience. I continue to pursue that development of what you could call my own spiritual path, but I don’t have a formal religious practice that I follow.

Q: Do you think alternative therapies will change medicine, or will medicine change alternative medicine?

A: I think that alternative medicine will probably change medicine, rather than the other way round. Alternative therapy really looks at a person on a biological and social and spiritual level, and many physicians have come to the understanding that we need to work with all these levels. And the crucial part is to know when it’s right to prescribe antibiotics or get a CAT scan, or when to address social issues.

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Belief in God changes our brain, physician says

Dr. Andrew Newberg, author of the book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” and other books in the field of neuroscience, is a physician in internal medicine and nuclear medicine as well as director of research in Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia. Newberg has pioneered study of the brain during religious and spiritual experiences.

Newberg was a guest Friday at the 11th annual Spirituality and Health Seminar. His lectures focused on how our health and happiness is affected by spirituality and by our emotions.

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How does your brain interpret the image at right?

The image shows four circles with one part of each cut out. There are no connecting lines but many people see a square, said Dr. Andrew Newberg, because the brain fills in the blanks.

Newberg, author of the book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” and other books in the field of neuroscience, is a physician in internal medicine and nuclear medicine as well as director of research in Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia. Newberg has pioneered study of the brain during religious and spiritual experiences.

Newberg was a guest Friday at the 11th annual Spirituality and Health Seminar. His lectures focused on how our health and happiness is affected by spirituality and by our emotions.

The seminar was sponsored by Summit Health and Menno Haven Retirement Communities.

As a basis for his lectures, Newberg presented results of brain X-rays of people during prayer and at other times.

“Our frontal lobes are what sets us apart from other species,” said Newberg as he pointed to X-rays showing that the frontal lobes of brains are more active during prayer. His research found that those parts of the brain activated by prayer in believers were not activated by prayer in atheists.

“Prayer and meditation affects the brain differently, depending on a person’s belief in God,” Newberg said.

In a study of Franciscan nuns engaged in deep prayer, X-rays showed increased blood flow in the part of the brain where we perceive ourselves apart from the rest of the world.

He also learned that those who have been meditating for a long time have more activity in their frontal lobes compared to those who do not meditate.

A study of older people with memory problems and who didn’t meditate showed changes in the brains of those who, after eight weeks, meditated for 12 minutes each day.

Newberg said positive emotions activate areas in the brain involved with happiness and reward, and lower stress responses in the brain improve memory.

“Emotional pain activates the same areas of the brain as those activated from physical pain,” he said, adding that people are more likely to recall things related to emotional incidents because emotions help us remember.

We use cognition to help create and maintain beliefs, and memory is an important part of that process, Newburg said.

He said the more people focus on their beliefs, the stronger their beliefs become. Repetitive meditation and rituals are useful in reinforcing our beliefs.

“The brain is a belief making machine,” Newburg said. “Beliefs affect every part of our lives, and every part of our lives affect our beliefs. When people hold a certain belief system, if research comes out against it, people will find reasons to hold their initial beliefs — their reality,” he said.

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Meditation may protect your brain

For thousands of years, Buddhist meditators have claimed that the simple act of sitting down and following their breath while letting go of intrusive thoughts can free one from the entanglements of neurotic suffering.

Now, scientists are using cutting-edge scanning technology to watch the meditating mind at work. They are finding that regular meditation has a measurable effect on a variety of brain structures related to attention — an example of what is known as neuroplasticity, where the brain physically changes in response to an intentional exercise.

A team of Emory University scientists reported in early September that experienced Zen meditators were much better than control subjects at dropping extraneous thoughts and returning to the breath. The study, ‘Thinking about Not-Thinking:’ Neural Correlates of Conceptual Processing During Zen Meditation, published by the online research journal PLoS ONE, found that “meditative training may foster the ability to control the automatic cascade of semantic associations triggered by a stimulus and, by extension, to voluntarily regulate the flow of spontaneous mentation.”

The same researchers reported last year that longtime meditators don’t lose gray matter in their brains with age the way most people do, suggesting that meditation may have a neuro-protective effect. A rash of other studies in recent years meanwhile have found, for example, that practitioners of insight meditation have noticeably thicker tissue in the prefrontal cortex (the region responsible for attention and control) and that experienced Tibetan monks practicing compassion meditation generate unusually strong and coherent gamma waves in their brains.

“There are a lot of potential applications for this,” said Milos Cekic, a member of the Emory research team and himself a longtime meditator. He suspects the simple practice of focusing attention on the breath could help patients suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and other conditions characterized by excessive rumination.

Meanwhile, a meditation-derived program developed at the University of Massachusetts called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is gaining popularity for treatment of anxiety and chronic illnesses at medical centers around the U.S.

As far back as the 1960s, Japanese scientists who used electroencephalograms (EEG) to measure the brain waves of Zen monks found characteristic patterns of activity. But the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the 1990s gave researchers a chance to see brains functioning in real time. Functional MRIs measure the blood flow in different parts of the brain, which correlates with how active they are.

The Emory team, which also included Giuseppe Pagnoni and Ying Guo, wanted to see whether Zen meditators were indeed better than novices at controlling the flow of thought, as meditators themselves report. Cekic and Pagnoni asked a dozen seasoned Zen meditators — including several monks — and a dozen control subjects to perform a simple cognitive task while undergoing an fMRI scan. The Zen practitioners all had at least three years of daily practice experience, while the control group members had none.

Inside the scanner, the subjects were all asked to follow their breathing while looking at a screen on which words or wordlike combinations of letters were flashed at irregular intervals. Students had to decide whether they were seeing a real word or a made-up word and signal by pressing a button and then return to focusing on their breathing.

The random word or letter combinations engaged what is sometimes called the “default semantic network,” a resting state in which words and thoughts arise spontaneously — what we experience as mind wandering, Cekic said. Practitioners of zazen (seated Zen meditation) are taught to notice when the mind has started to wander and quickly return attention to the breath.

When the word or letter combinations flashed on the screen, the experienced meditators were quickly able to leave the default state and return to their breathing, Cekic says. “You have these extended reverberations in the semantic network after you give people a word,” Cekic said. “The meditators pretty much turn it off as soon as it’s physiologically possible, while the non-meditators don’t.”

This is the second set of findings to have come from the fMRI experiments, Cekic said. Although people lose neurons — gray matter — and have more trouble concentrating as they age, the study published last year by the Emory team found this wasn’t true of the Zen practitioners.

“What we saw in the meditators was pretty much a straight line,” Cekic said. “There was no decrease with age in their gray-matter volume.” There was also no decline in attention — in fact, the effect of meditation on gray matter was most pronounced in the putamen, a brain structure linked to attention. “We can’t say causally that meditation prevents cell death, but we did see in our sample that the meditators did not see a gray matter loss with age,” Cekic said.

Meanwhile, Harvard University researcher Sara Lazar made headlines in 2005 when she reported that Western practitioners of insight meditation — a non-judgmental awareness of present-moment experience that resembles zazen — had significantly thicker tissue in their prefrontal cortex and insula than non-meditators.

Lazar, who practices insight meditation and yoga, performed fMRI scans on 20 experienced meditators and 15 controls with no meditation experience. Lazar said that because earlier research had mostly been conducted on monks, she wanted to see whether the once-a-day meditation sessions typical of most American meditators might affect brain structures.

Unlike earlier research, which had focused on brain waves or measured neural blood flow, Lazar’s experiment yielded the first concrete evidence linking meditation practice to changed brain structure. “The nice thing about (studying) the structure is it’s something solid,” she said. “It’s not performance on a task. It’s your brain.”

Lazar says it’s too soon to tell whether meditation causes new gray matter to form or whether it protects against the normal decline of brain volume. The greatest contrasts were seen between the cortical tissue of meditators and control subjects who were in their 40s and 50s, she says, while the insula, which integrates sensory processing, was thicker in meditators of all ages.

Future research will require longitudinal studies — following subjects through time — to see whether or not meditation is causing the neural changes. “Maybe meditators are weird,” Lazar said, suggesting that perhaps people with unusual brains are especially drawn to meditation.

Where does all this lead?

Andrew Newberg, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who has written such popular books as Why We Believe What We Believe and who has conducted brain scans of meditating Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns engaged in contemplative prayer, believes the science shows meditation works.

“The overwhelming evidence is that meditation has benefits,” he said. “If it makes your mind clearer and helps you focus your attention better, it should help people.”

For more than a decade, Newberg has plumbed spiritual mysteries, using fMRI and SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) to measure blood flow in the brains of not only meditators but people in the throes of other religious experiences, including speaking in tongues, as well.

“The fascinating thing to me is that when people have these mystical experiences, they not only describe it as real, but they describe it as more real than our everyday experience,” he said. It raises the question of just what is real.

“I recognize that studying some of the things I study may get me to an answer,” he added. “A lot of this has been my own spiritual journey, which has become a lot more meditative and contemplative.”

[via Miller-McCune News]
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Meditation improves cognition in those with memory loss

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The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation has announced data demonstrating that a meditation performed daily for eight weeks increased brain activity in areas central to memory and actually improved cognition in patients suffering from memory problems. The results of the study, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, will be published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in April, 2010.

The risk of Alzheimer’s disease rises dramatically as people age and, as the ranks of our nation’s elderly swell, the number of people facing this dreadful disease will devastate our already overburdened healthcare system. Slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s by five or ten years would lessen this burden dramatically, but few options to slow, or perhaps even prevent, memory loss exist.

“While meditation is already practiced by millions, this is the first study to investigate its potential to reverse memory loss in patients with cognitive impairment,” said Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., the founding president and medical director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, a meditation expert and study co-author. Kirtan Kriya (KK), the meditation evaluated in the study, is a 12-minute practice from the Kundalini yoga tradition. “These results confirm what we have long observed in clinical practice, that this brief, simple meditation can have a meaningful impact on memory and on the quality of people’s lives as they age.”

The frontal lobe of the brain, which became more active as a result of meditation in the study, aids in attention and concentration and has been shown to be affected in patients with dementia disorders. The frontal lobe and the parietal lobe, another part of the brain positively affected in the study, are both parts of the brain which are involved in retrieving memories.

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“It would be extremely useful to have a cost-effective, non-pharmacological approach to slowing memory loss that could bolster the effect of medications without fear of side effects or drug-drug interactions,” said Andrew Newberg, M.D., associate professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and study co-author. “While further study into the impact of Kirtan Kriya is required, the pilot study demonstrates that this meditation could be a very important tool in improving cognition in people with memory loss.”

About the Study

Fifteen subjects with memory problems, ranging in age from 52 to 77 years, were enrolled in this open-label pilot study. At the start of the study, cognitive tests, as well as images of the brain measuring cerebral blood flow (CBF), were taken for each subject using Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) scans. Subjects were taught meditation and instructed to practice it each day for eight weeks.

While this was an open-label study, a small comparison group (n=5) was also recruited in which the meditation was replaced with a music listening task. The “music group” was instructed to listen to two Mozart violin concertos each day for approximately 12 minutes. Subjects kept a daily log of their study activity and were contacted at four weeks with a reminder to continue the practice.

After eight weeks, cognitive tests and SPECT scans were repeated for both groups(ii) and researchers compared pre-program with post-program results. The study found that:

  • Cerebral blood flow was increased in the meditating group in the frontal lobe regions and the right superior parietal lobe
  • In contrast, a non-significant increase in cerebral blood flow was seen in the music group in the amygdala and precuneus areas of the brain
  • The mediation group had statistically significant improvements in a neuropsychological test which measures cognition by asking subjects to name as many animals as they can in one minute
  • Improvements were also seen in the group of meditators in three other cognitive tests that measured general memory, attention and cognition
  • There were no statistically significant improvements in cognition in the music group
  • Participants found the meditation to be enjoyable and beneficial and perceived their cognitive function to be improved

About the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation

The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation (ARPF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease by conducting clinical research and providing educational outreach about the lifestyle changes that can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. For more information, please visit the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation at

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God on the brain at Penn’s Neuroscience Boot Camp

Reuters Blogs: Neurotheology – the study of the link between belief and the brain – is a topic I’ve hesitated to write about for several years. There are all kinds of theories out there about how progress in neuroscience is changing our understanding of religion, spirituality and mystical experience. Some say the research proves religion is a natural product of the way the brain works, others that God made the brain that way to help us believe. I knew so little about the science behind these ideas that I felt I had to learn more about the brain first before I could comment.

If that was an excuse for procrastination, I don’t have it anymore. For all this week and half the next, I’m attending a “Neuroscience Boot Camp” at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This innovative program, run by Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Director Martha Farah, aims to explain the latest research in neuroscience to 34 non-experts from fields such as law, business, philosophy and religious studies (as well as to a few journalists). The focus is not only on religion, but faith and issues related to it are certainly part of the discussion.

After only two of 8-1/2 days of lectures, one takeaway message is already clear. You can forget about the “God spot” that headline writers love to highlight (as in “‘God spot’ is found in Brain” or “Scientists Locate ‘God Spot’ in Human Brain”). There is no one place in the brain responsible for religion, just as there is no single location in the brain for love or language or identity. Most popular articles these days actually say that, but the headline writers continue to speak of a single spot.

“There isn’t a separate religious area of the brain, from what we can tell from the data,” said Dr. Andrew Newberg, an associate professor of radiology and psychiatry at the Penn university hospital and author of several books on neuroscience and religion. “It’s not like there’s a little spiritual spot that lights up every time somebody thinks of God. When you look at religious and spiritual experiences, they are incredibly rich and diverse. Sometimes people find them on the emotional level, sometimes on an ideological level, sometimes they perceive a oneness, sometimes they perceive a person. It depends a lot on what the actual experience is.”

In their research, Newberg and his colleagues have scanned the brains of Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns to see if their long experience of meditation and prayer had left its mark on their brains. One thing they noticed was that their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain linked to concentration and decision making, seemed to be more active than usual even in a resting state, and more active still while meditating. Some studies showed it was even larger in long-term meditators than other people. “It’s almost like a muscle,” he said. “If you exercise it every day through meditation, you enhance and increase its function.”

Rather than being located in separate areas, religious and spiritual phenomena “tend to be built upon the existing framework of how the brain works”, said Newberg. “So if we have an experience of the love of God, there is an underlying biology of that experience that is probably the same as how you feel love for your wife, for example. On the other hand, what we also tend to find is that there seems to be a larger network of structures that do tend to get involved. The data seem to suggest that (faith) probably activates these structures to a slightly stronger degree.

“If you’re doing math, your frontal lobe turns on. If you’re doing meditation, your frontal lobe turns on. But if you’re solving math, the frontal lobe turns on and that’s about it, you solve the math problem and then you’re done. With meditation, the frontal lobes turn on, but based on our research, then there’s activation in the temporal lobes, the parietal lobes are changing, and then it starts to activate the limbic system, the emotional drivers of your brain. So a lot more is happening.

“There are some people who say this is evolutionarily adaptive,” Newberg observed. “I try to get away from that because, unfortunately, there’s no real way to prove that. You don’t know what happened 100,000 years ago, whether religion became a part of us as human beings because of the mystical experiences people had, because people were afraid of dying and wanted to know what happened afterwards, or because it created a system of morals and ethics for people and helped enhance socialisation. It does all of those things, sure, but we don’t really know if it was all of those things or one or two of them. To some degree, I get worried about how much we can take that argument.

“My favorite discussion is what does this really mean. Does it mean we’ve found how God interacts with our brain or have we found that God is nothing more than a manifestation of our brain? I don’t have an answer for you yet …”

It isn’t all just lectures at the Boot Camp. We’ve also visited the university hospital’s fMRI scanner, where patients are slid into a narrow tunnel surrounded by a huge and powerful magnet. That’s me in the picture above entering the hospital’s mock scanner used to accustom patients to the claustrophobic feel of the machine before they actually enter the real one to have their brains scanned.

I’ll have more from the boot camp in coming days about religion, ethics and other issues. Anyone interested in getting a closer look at the conference can follow the Bloggin’ from Boot Camp entries by Francis X. Shen on the Law and Neuroscience Blog. Shen, a lecturer in Harvard’s Department of Government, is writing daily wraps on the day’s discussions for the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project.

Original article no longer available…

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The brain at prayer

Why do humans pray? What happens in our brains when we meditate? Are we genetically programmed to look for the spiritual experience? These are questions that have driven American scientists to scan the brains of meditating monks and nuns at prayer – in the hope of understanding the link between the religious experience and the workings of the brain.

Ever since he was five years old, Andrew Newberg has been asking himself the big questions – why are we here? Is there a God? How big is the Universe? Now as a neurologist and radiologist, Dr Newberg is still asking big questions about how the mind and brain work – and whether it is possible to “see” a spiritual experience as it happens in the brain. “We’ve been doing brain-imaging studies to look at what goes on when somebody is praying,” explains Dr Newberg, who is Director of Clinical Nuclear Medicine at Pennsylvania University in Philadelphia. “We wanted to find out how we as human beings experience certain types of spiritual events; how these spiritual experiences affect the different regions of the human brain and to ask important questions about the philosophical and theological implications of such research.”

Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns

So Dr Newberg invited local communities of Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns into the laboratory where, using radioactive tracers, he could monitor any changes in blood flow to the different regions of the brain during meditation. For this, Dr Newberg used a state-of-the-art imaging tool called a SPECT camera – SPECT stands for Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography – which detects radioactive emissions. “Our volunteers were certainly very happy to take part in these experiments,” explains Dr Newberg, “as we explained to them that we were not trying to diminish their experience or explain away a deeply personal and profound event.”

So what was Dr Newberg’s team looking for and what did they find? Dr Andrew Newberg: “Our theories about what goes on in the brain during spiritual practices is that many different areas of the brain are involved – that there’s not one spot. Some people have talked about a “God Module” but we don’t really feel that way. When one looks at the broad array of religious experiences, they involve our emotions, thoughts, sensations, feelings – I think it really has to involve many different regions all working together.”

The main areas of the brain which the team thought would be involved include the Frontal lobes, which allows us to focus our attention, and the Parietal lobes, which help us distinguish ourselves from the outside world.

Altered sense of self-image

“When we stared looking at the results, we saw that a lot of our hypotheses were correct, says Dr Newberg. “When people meditated, they activated this front attention-focussing area of the brain and turned off this orientation, parietal part of the brain – basically blocking the sensory input into that part of the brain, which would be associated with an altered sense of self-image. We also saw a very significant increase in activity in an area known as the thalamus which plays a key-role in allowing parts of the brain to ‘talk’ to each other.”

So what does all this mean? Did God create the brain or does the brain create God? Dr Newberg remains open-minded; “We’ve tried to come down in the middle – to find ways to bring science and religion together and to provide information to allow people to open up a dialogue, so that we can start asking the really big questions that all human beings have asked throughout time.” Read the rest of this article…

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