When meditation met MRI

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers ready a Buddhist monk for an fMRI scan during their Buddha’s brain project. Image from wisconline.com

Meditation really seems to work as a peacekeeper—even between itself and the seemingly opposite discipline that is scientific research.

Or at least, that’s the picture that came out of an April 25 talk given by CNS Managing Director Denise Clegg on the benefits of mindfulness. I’ve written on the burgeoning relationship between contemplative practice and neuroscience before. But as part of this year’s Philadelphia Science Festival, this talk gave a fresh look at the topic by unpacking what exactly scientific studies could have to say about meditation and related practices.

At first glance, the two fields seem to operate on different planes. Where one strives for objectivity, the other goes for heightened consciousness of subjective experiences. But Clegg and her colleague Ilene Wasserman broke right through that surface-level opposition with a plenty of findings from neuroscience that probe how meditation might change the brain, what level of impact it can have and on whom.

In one study Clegg mentioned, eight weeks of regular meditative practice was associated with greater activation in left-sided anterior brain regions that have been linked to positive emotions. This activation pattern also predicted a better response to flu vaccine in subjects who meditated. Looking at a group of especially stressed individuals, another study found an association between an eight-week mindfulness program and reduced gray matter density in the amygdala. This finding pointed to one way meditation might literally shape the brain.

Other studies took on clinical issues, like examining meditative practice as a potential treatment for ADHD. Another looked at the ways positive emotions, mediated by mindfulness, can promote healthy outcomes like a bolstered sense of purpose.

Whatever the topic, Clegg emphasized that these studies should be viewed as “promising, but preliminary.” Many had fairly small sample sizes, i.e. around two dozen subjects. And since meditation asks individuals to focus on their own bodies, many of its effects may be specialized. Within these limitations, what these studies really do is probe at a collaborative field that is relatively new — making it both speculative and exciting.

Clegg and Wasserman also kept the audience from losing sight of the heart of the field: meditative practice itself. Guided by Clegg, we tried breathing techniques, shifting our attention and the technique of loving kindness meditation. That gave us a flavor for the activities that may drive the positive outcomes we discussed. (Anyone interested in learning more about mindfulness practice can start here.)

Even practiced briefly, these techniques had a calming effect. And who knows—if you do them enough, they might, say, shrink your amygdala and your fear responses.

CNS to teach and play at Philly’s Science Festival

The CNS will participate in the third annual Philadelphia Science Festival, which runs April 18-28 and offers events for all ages. Image from philasciencefestival.org

Calling all fans of science, brains and brew: the Philadelphia Science Festival starts now! Tonight kicks off the ten-day celebration with a carnival, where you can check out laser shows, 3-D printing and more, all with a Pythagorean Beerum in hand. And the CNS is in on the fun — check out the events below. We’ll see you there.

Tackling Concussions
Monday, April 22, 6:00 p.m.
City Tap House, 3925 Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104
Concussions have become a hot topic in the sports world in recent years. How do concussions really occur and what are their short and long-term health implications? More importantly, what changes will new research bring to the games we love? Hosted by Douglas H. Smith, Director of Penn Center for Brain Injury and Repair.

This is Your Brain on Meditation: The Benefits of Mindfulness
Thursday, April 25, 6:00 p.m.
Franklin Square Park Pavilion, 200 N. 6th St., Philadelphia, PA 19106
Mindfulness Meditation has been associated with a wide range of mental and physical benefits. But what is it about mindfulness and meditation that foster well-being and buffers against the adverse effects of stress, anxiety, and depression? A discussion about the growing body of research on this topic will be followed by a short, guided session of mindfulness meditation with CNS Managing Director Denise Clegg and Ilene Wasserman, PhD.

Science for Sinners
Sunday, April 28, 6:00 p.m.
Frankford Hall, 1210 Frankford Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19125
Join this science spin on the seven deadly sins. Eat, drink, and be wary with talks and entertainment acts. Seven speakers will talk about the science behind the 7 sins, including Penn faculty Joseph Kable and Adrian Raine.

In poverty, is your heart your stress ball?

University of Pittsburgh researcher Peter Gianaros speaks on poverty and stress for the last CNS Public Talk of the academic year. Image from the CNS

This year’s CNS Public Talk Series wrapped up April 4 with a foray into poverty, stress and heart disease — not the usual suspects for a neuroscience lecture. But speaker Peter Gianaros’ goal was to address health inequalities as a problem for neuroscience, and he started by explaining his own journey from studying cardiovascular disease risk to studying the brain.

That journey began with a decision to address the “elephant in the room” for health research: the fact that those living in poverty suffer more chronic illness across the board, including heart disease. Since stress affects cardiovascular responses, and low socioeconomic status individuals experience more stress, Gianaros focused on those two links.

Gianaros and colleagues have used behavioral paradigms to track factors like stress and emotional reactions, and they’ve turned to brain imaging to examine the corresponding brain systems. They’ve also tracked subjects’ education level, income and occupation — three factors the social science literature has shown tap into distinct aspects of social standing. Finally, to gauge effects on the heart, they looked at intima media thickness. IMT measures thickness of the arterial wall, with higher thickness indicating greater risk for heart disease.

Sifting through all these elements, the research has so far pointed to surprising connections, which help explain the greater vulnerability of low SES individuals to cardiovascular disease. SES shows an inverse relationship with IMT — that is, those with low SES have thicker arteries. The likely culprit?  Stress. As indicated by higher amygdala response to threat, these individuals are also more reactive to stress. And separate studies have found that higher amygdala response to threat in turn correlates with higher IMT, highlighting the relevant connection between the heart and the brain.

As Gianaros acknowledged, this work is very much associational — messy for determining cause and effect. After his talk, audience discussion focused on other factors that can alter stress levels, like social support and traumatic incidents. There’s a seemingly unending list of possible mediators. That helps explain why many researchers shy away from SES: it adds complicating layers in a discipline whose MO is to strip the most causal layers away possible.

But Gianaros’ point was that these complications are exactly what seem to drive chronic illness. He ended by calling for neuroscientists to pay more attention to health inequalities, and for inequalities researchers to pay more attention to neuroscience. In that respect, the CNS is already on board.

Out of control (and it’s a good thing)

An illustration from the Thompson-Schill lab highlighting the two sides to cognitive control. Image from psych.upenn.edu/stslab

A recent study coming out of Penn’s psychology department is challenging two beliefs: one about a trendy technology, and one long-held assumption about control in the brain. Best of all, it’s done so by testing a grown-up equivalent of playtime.

To probe types of of goal-oriented thinking in the brain, the study used transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS — the trendy technology in the picture. tDCS works by placing electrodes over the scalp to either inhibit or promote activity in a targeted part of the brain. Led by Sharon Thompson-Schill, who directs the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, the research team used this tool to inhibit activity in subjects’ prefrontal cortex (PFC) while measuring their performance on tests with different goals.

The results? Inhibiting left PFC — an area known to act as a filter for irrelevant information in goal-directed tasks — improved subjects’ abilities to come up with uncommon uses for common objects. Much as children would think to use, say, a broken antennae as a magic wand for play, adult subjects had to suggest uses for an object like Kleenex besides the obvious one, blowing your nose. It turned out they were better at doing this when the cognitive filter in their left PFC was temporarily turned off by tDCS.

The importance of left PFC in this study brings us to the idea of cognitive control. Cognitive control refers to brain processes that allow us to focus on immediate goals — in other words, processes like the PFC filter. Such mechanisms help us ignore any information that may bombard us when we’re completing a task, but which has nothing to do with our goal and so only serves as a distraction. Cognitive control is thus helpful in the opposite version of the playtime task, where subjects had to ignore any information about Kleenex that didn’t reflect its typical purpose of collecting snot.

So the role of the left PFC here was two-faced: As it promoted focus, it sapped away imagination. And that’s where the key insights from this study arise.

For one thing, it highlights that the effects of tDCS cannot be categorized along the binary of “good” or “bad.” This comes as a surprise to those who have wanted to see tDCS as a sort of holy grail treatment, a view recently questioned in Slate and Wired.

It’s reasonably tempting to venerate this treatment. tDCS has mild physical side effects, usually just some scalp tingling or generally manageable discomforts like headaches. It also can be applied all over the scalp. This last feature makes it a possible treatment for a range of psychiatric disorders and a viable form of cognitive enhancement. But as this study shows, if stimulating some part of the brain helps with one type of task, it is likely to impede others. It looks like with the brain, as with most things, we can’t expect to get something for nothing.

That same conclusion applies to the study’s findings with respect to cognitive control, a topic Thompson-Schill has been studying for twenty years. She said the focus has always been on how cognitive control enhances performance rather than how it might hurt. “I feel like there’s just kind of an assumption that having cognitive control would make anything better — or at least, neutral or better,” she said.

She began to question this assumption after reviewing the developmental psychology literature, which has plenty to say about things young children do better than adults. One of those things is thinking outside the box, at least when it comes to simple objects. The literature also shows that kids don’t start developing cognitive control until age 3 or 4. Combine these observations together, and you’ve got a hypothesis in the tradition of evolutionary psychology: Maybe those childhood years without cognitive control aren’t just a hindrance. “I started asking, what if late cognitive control development is an adaptation?” Thompson-Schill said.

It’s hard to show that any cognitive feature is an adaptation per se. Even so, this study at least supports the idea that cognitive control — like tDCS — should be framed as a trade-off, rather than something with only positive effects.

As Thompson-Schill explained, this finding could further influence the way the concept of cognitive control gets applied, especially in education. Some researchers have advocated lesson plans to improve cognitive control, so as to heighten kids’ focus and other traits important for learning. But when such plans are implemented, it’s important to remember that we might not want cognitive control all the time — that imaginative thinking also contributes to learning.

After all, isn’t the real lesson from this study obvious?  We all need playtime. And sometimes, even the most alluring tools and assumptions can get in the way of our play.

On dead worms and the need for sleep

The C. elegans worm, which is used to study the microbiology of sleep. Image from sas.upenn.edu (via Samy Belfer’s research)

Imagine if bouncing back from an all-nighter could kill you. Such was the case, by analogy, for a group of roundworms recently studied by a team of researchers at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.

The full paper can be found here, but the main idea involved modeling sleep deprivation in the C. elegans worm. Researchers stimulated (i.e., poked) the worms awake during what would normally be a lethargic period. For control worms, this “deprivation” provoked a homeostatic sleep response — bodily adjustments to compel the worm to rest, like feelings of exhaustion in humans that are coordinated by the brain. For worms with a mutation blocking these adjustments, their response at first looked better than normal. They stayed awake through what was meant to be a rest period and seemed to avoid their equivalent of exhaustion. Except then, a bunch of them died.

You might say, hmm, that’s interesting enough — but this obviously wasn’t an “all-nighter” in a human sense of the phrase. These worms don’t even experience what we humans think of as being sleep. Yet as Penn’s chief sleep researcher, David Dinges, explained, simple animal models have often fostered insights into the mechanisms of human sleep. “You can’t just say this is irrelevant, that it’s just a worm hanging in a bubble of water. It’s highly relevant,” Dinges said.

In particular, he pointed out that mechanisms for sleep and energy conservation are dictated by features of our natural environment — like the sunlight/darkness cycle — that affect all manner of living things, from worms to people.

Given this connection, I didn’t feel completely ridiculous responding to this study by reconsidering the way humans gauge our own need for sleep. Just to tease out this idea, let’s anthropomorphize these worms a bit by thinking of them like people. The mutants would be those irritatingly efficient individuals who seem able to stay up all night and still function in the morning. But in this case, seemingly out of nowhere, the little guys met their maker. Even if the worms looked like they could manage without rest, they clearly couldn’t.

I wonder if something like this often happens with people. We might think we’ve recovered fine from a few nights of scant sleep after we’ve had some caffeine pick-me-ups or a good nap. We subscribe to the notion of “catching up”: going days or weeks at a time on unhealthy schedules, with the assumption our bodies will recover once we hit a weekend or vacation period when we can sleep in. Though these binges are meant to compensate for sleep we’ve lost, it looks like in many ways they fall short.

This is the not so rosy pictured outlined by psychology doctoral student Andrea Spaeth, who studies sleep and energy balance under Dinges. Spaeth noted that long-term sleep loss is associated with substantial weight gain and unhealthy eating behaviors. After someone sleeps in, or “recovers,” following a stint of deprivation, they typically just return to baseline levels of eating. That means they’ll have to work extra to make up for any damage already caused to their fitness during their time of insufficient sleep.

“Catching up” may also fail to restore function. Take someone who sleeps less than seven hours a night for multiple days and then binges with a 12-hour sleep session (in other words, many a college student). Even after that binge, performance on a range of cognitive tasks is still likely to be impaired.

So though the worm findings are interesting in their own right, they can also be a reminder: we can still need sleep even when we feel fine or think we’ve “caught up.” The stakes may not be quite as high for us as they were for the tragic C. elegans mutants. Still, the potential for chronic weight gain and decreased cognitive function is desirable for no one.

Beware a fast track to “better brains”

A personalized home page on Lumosity, a member of the growing community of companies to offer online brain training. (Yes,

A personalized home page on Lumosity, one of the growing number of companies that offer online brain training. 

It’s an alluring promise: play some games and get smarter. That’s the idea behind brain training, which has piggybacked off neuroscience to become its own little commercial field. Groups like LearningRx and Lumosity — you may have seen ads for the latter — offer regimes of online games meant to improve aspects of cognition like memory, attention and speed.

Brain training was the subject of last week’s CNS Public Talk, given by University of Maryland professor and working memory researcher Susanne Jaeggi. Jaeggi became a media go-to on the topic after publishing a paper in 2008 suggesting that memory training can boost general intelligence, that hard-to-pin-down quality long associated with IQ scores. Unfortunately, I missed Jaeggi’s lecture. But I’ve been prompted by her appearance at Penn to look into brain training from both the academic and commercial sides. What I’ve begun to find is that the two sides sometimes get way too blurred, an outcome not all that surprising for a topic with so much popular appeal.

Brain training’s made waves in the press, and it’s not hard to see why. Most people I know, myself included, experience internal wars between our aspirational and lazy impulses. We like to get better at things, but what we really love is to see results after putting in the least work possible. On its surface, brain training answers both desires: it’s packaged as a way we can make ourselves smarter in half-hour long chunks a few times a week. It’s a time commitment that amounts to keeping up with a couple new TV shows, and an experience that amounts to playing basic computer games.

Slap the “neuroscience-supported” label on there and you’ve got a gold mine: a new approach to self-help, legitimized by the oft-misunderstood authority that is “science.”

OK, at this point I might be sounding too cynical. Yes, my inner curmudgeon balks at the idea of intelligence or smarts being stripped down to technical terms like “working memory,” at the neglect of traits like creativity and depth of thought. But on a basic level, I’m all for tools that can make lives better. It’d be great if brain training could genuinely help individuals with cognitive problems, young students, or really just anyone improve at everyday facets of thinking like juggling many pieces of information. Better still if these improvements translate to other aspects of thinking — say, problem solving and communicating — that may reflect broader intelligence.

And beyond the potential benefits, there is reason to at least study brain training in relation to neuroplasticity, or the brain’s capacity to change. After all, some nosing through the work of training supporters like Jaeggi shows that the relevant research doesn’t come from hacks.

My thing is, though, the most encouraging (if still controversial) work here has been behavioral. When it comes to endorsing these specific training methods, the support from neuroscience is largely indirect or speculative.  So as I explore my trial Lumosity account — where I can’t do much, since I won’t pay — it’s hard not to sigh when the site references “neurogenesis” to explain how these games will better my brain.

Isn’t it enough to tell me that if I keep playing the offered memory games, I might stop leaving my keys everywhere? Do these sites have to make dubious claims like they’re literally spurring the growth of new neurons in my brain? A more academic perspective says no: the most recent training-related paper on Jaeggi’s site concludes that more research is needed to say anything about how working memory training actually affects the brain.

So maybe the claims on sites like Lumosity should change. Brain training’s not so much “neuroscience-approved” — it’s got some behavioral support that’s still being interpreted. Any support from neuroscience is very much under construction.