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Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): Can We Train the Mind to Heal the Body?

Meditation has been championed for centuries in religious practices such as Tibetan Buddhism, as a practice that seeks to free the mind of the faithful from the earthbound constraints of stress, worry, and self. Only in the past few decades has it been studied as a potential adjuvant medical treatment. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a program designed and implemented by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979. Since that time, the field has expanded to encompass over 240 programs across the U.S.

 Recently, researchers at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Harvard announced an exciting discovery in the study on the benefits of mindfulness based stress reduction. For the first time ever, they were able to show that mindfulness meditation causes increased activity in the brain regions associated with positive mood. Not only this but, the magnitude of activation in these brain areas then correlated to the participant’s strength of immune response to a flu vaccine as long as 8 weeks after vaccination. These data suggest that not only does mindfulness based stress reduction work wonders for our short term emotional states, but that it also may benefit our physical body in the long term as well.

 The subjects in this study were recruited from a biotechnology firm in Madison, Wisconsin. All participants were healthy and not experienced in meditation. The researchers measured the electrical brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) before randomization into treatment and control groups. The treatment group of 25 participants received an 8 week MBSR program consisting of a weekly class that met for two and half to three hours per week, plus a one-day silent retreat held during week six. The treatment group was also instructed to complete guided meditations at home 1 hour 6 days a week as homework, using audio tapes. The control group of 16 participants was put on a wait-list.

 Mood and anxiety measures were collected using a psychological battery of positive and negative mood states and the Speilberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. Overall the meditation subjects reported significant reduced anxiety, and reduced negative moods over the course of the study.  At the outset there was no difference in areas of brain activation in the two groups. However, over the course of the study the meditation group showed a significant increase in left-sided anterior temporal area activation. These are the brain areas associated with positive mood states and a sense of overall general well-being. The magnitude of these changes later corresponded to the individual’s response in antibody level to the flu vaccine (i.e the stronger the activation observed in the positive affect regions of the brain, then the stronger the body’s immune response to the flu vaccine).

 These findings have lead researchers to hypothesize that our body’s response to both positive and negative life situations is plastic, and can change and improve through training. Perhaps, MBSR offers the key to tapping this unforeseen potential to deal with a variety of stressors, emotional, physical, and spiritual. As more research is done in this area we will continue to learn more about the untapped possibilities of  the mind in creating both a mental and physical shift towards total health and wellness.


 Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher S, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, et al. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness based meditation. Psychosom Med. 2003; 65:564-70.

Date Published: 02/08/2006
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