Mindfulness Meditation Anxiety Relief Linked to 2 Brain Regions

Science has known that meditation can reduce anxiety for some time. Now, a study from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has identified the brain functions involved.

Activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex correlated with anxiety relief during meditation.

“Although we’ve known that meditation can reduce anxiety, we hadn’t identified the specific brain mechanisms involved in relieving anxiety in healthy individuals,” said lead author Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D. “In this study, we were able to see which areas of the brain were activated and which were deactivated during meditation-related anxiety relief.”

No Experience Required

This study involved 15 volunteers with average levels of everyday anxiety. They were individuals with no previous meditation experience or anxiety disorders. All the subjects took part in four 20-minute classes for learning the mindfulness meditation technique. In this type of meditation, people are trained to focus on breath and body sensations and to non-judgmentally note distracting thoughts and feelings.

Prior to and after the meditation training, study participants’ brain activity was looked at using arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging . This type of imaging is especially effective for imaging brain processes, like meditation. Also, anxiety reports were evaluated before and after brain scanning.

Decreases in anxiety were reported by a majority of study participants reported, with meditation reducing anxiety ratings by as much as 39 percent.

“This showed that just a few minutes of mindfulness meditation can help reduce normal everyday anxiety,” Zeidan said.

Executive-level Function Regions

The researchers found that meditation-related anxiety relief is associated with activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, brain regions associated with executive-level function.

During meditation, there was greater activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls worrying. Also, anxiety decreased when activity increased in the anterior cingulate cortex, the area that governs thinking and emotion.

“Mindfulness is premised on sustaining attention in the present moment and controlling the way we react to daily thoughts and feelings,” Zeidan said. “Interestingly, the present findings reveal that the brain regions associated with meditation-related anxiety relief are remarkably consistent with the principles of being mindful.”

Other research has shown that meditation can extensively reduce anxiety in patients with generalized anxiety and depression disorders. The results of this neuro-imaging experiment match that body of knowledge, said Zeidan, by showing the brain mechanisms associated with meditation-related anxiety relief in healthy people.

Original Study:

F. Zeidan, K. T. Martucci, R. A. Kraft, J. G. McHaffie, R. C. Coghill.
Neural Correlates of Mindfulness Meditation-Related Anxiety Relief.
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2013; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nst041

Image: Shelley James, Wellcome Images