Of Mellowness and Mice: The Effects of “Meditation” Training on the Mouse Brain

Meditation word cloud

Meditation

Clients often ask me, “What is the effect of meditation practice?” I’ve written about effects of meditation here and here.

Today the New York Times had an interesting article called Of Mice and Mindfulness, which answers that question a little bit. They report a study conducted at the University of Oregon by Cristopher Niell and others.

They cite past studies that found that people who meditate tended to have more white matter around the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a part of the brain that regulates emotion. Meditation also increases the theta wave activity of the brain. Some researchers have wondered if the increased theta wave activity increased the white matter.

Theta waves run at a frequency of 8 Hz, and researchers at the University of Oregon figured out that they could test the effects of this frequency with a very complicated research design. Previously scientists there had developed a breed of mice that had genes that were responsive to light. By beaming light into the mice brains at the same frequency as human theta waves they found that this turned on the neurons in the anterior cingulate cortexes. The researchers also beamed light at a frequency of 1Hz and 40 Hz as a control.

Each mouse got 30 minutes of light therapy for 20 days, which was an attempt to mimic the intensity of human meditation. After, the mice that were exposed to the 8 Hz theta wave frequencies of light were mellower; they hung out in the lighted area of a special cage, while their non-meditating counterparts hid in the shadows! (The 1Hz group also were mellower, which does call into question the specificity of the theta frequency needed to create mellowness in mice.)

So what can we learn about this study of the murine mind? (Yes, who knew that the word murine refers to mice and other related rodents.) The research suggests that there is something about lower frequency brain stimulation that leads to lowered anxiety and increased bravery. I think it’s probably a stretch to assume that this research directly supports the same concept in humans, since nobody is going to replicate this research with people. Nevertheless, it adds to the idea of the mechanism of meditation, which may actually change your brain when practiced diligently for a month.

Now I’m going to take a writing break and meditate…

P.S.  Please see my article How to Meditate if you want to start meditating. 

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Suffer From Insomnia? Best Insomnia Drug Is Not A Drug, But Rather Cognitive Behavioral Therapy According to Consumer Reports

Do you suffer from insomnia? Have you tried sleeping pills? When a major consumer ratings agency such as Consumer Reports endorses cognitive behavioral therapy over drug treatment for insomnia, it is big news.sleeping dog

In the May 2017 issue of Consumer Reports (CR), there is an article entitled Why the Best Insomnia Treatment Is Not a Drug.  In earlier versions of their articles on sleep and medications for sleep they had reviewed various different sleeping agents but in this updated article they conclude that at best, the newer sleep medications add only between eight and 20 minutes of sleep time, and don’t improve how people feel or operate the next day.

They also reviewed a recent systematic research study by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) that compared multiple treatments for sleep problems including drugs, cognitive behavioral therapy, and alternative therapies. This study concluded that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a safe and effective way to treat insomnia, and is more effective and safer than other treatments.

So Consumer Reports’ Best Buy drug pick is actually not a drug at all! It is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). They recommend at least one session and optimally suggest three to six  sessions of CBT with a psychologist.

They also have a good description of how CBT works for insomnia. They explain how you meet with a psychologist and work on changing your beliefs about sleep, as well as changing certain behaviors that may contribute to insomnia. CR also includes a concise chart about bad sleep habits and how to fix them. They have an excellent description of CBT for insomnia here.  If CBT was a sleep medication, promoted by a powerful drug company, it would be a multibillion-dollar product!

insomnia slide

I have previously written about CBT for the treatment of insomnia in the article Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) Outperforms Drugs for Insomnia,   Want to Sleep Better? Get Brief CBT-I Therapy for Sleep Instead of Sleeping Pills, and Good News! You May Be Getting More Sleep Than You Think, Especially If You Suffer Insomnia! so I will just summarize some of the conclusions from those articles.

The bottom line for these articles was that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for insomnia was safe, effective and long-lasting in its effects. What is clear from virtually every study of sleep treatments is that CBT may be the only treatment for sleep problems that doesn’t have side effects and negative impacts into the next day. According to a 2015 Consumer Report survey, 36% of people who took a sleeping pill felt drowsy the next day. They also report a study of 410,000 adults published in the American Journal of Public health which found that those who took sleeping pills were twice as likely to be in automobile crashes. The researchers in this study concluded that people taking sleep medications were as likely to have car accidents as people with blood-alcohol levels above the legal limit!

So what are the recommendations and interventions used in CBT for insomnia?

  1. Spend only seven or eight hours in bed, and don’t compensate for insomnia by lying in bed for ten or eleven hours, as that just teaches you to be an inefficient sleeper.
  2. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  3. Don’t go to bed unless you actually feel sleepy. If you can’t fall asleep get out of bed and do something peaceful and relaxing until you are sleepy, and then go back to bed.
  4. Try to get regular exercise but don’t exercise in the evening.
  5. Use your bed only for sleeping (or sex), don’t read or watch TV or look at your smartphone in bed.
  6. Don’t nap.
  7. Reduce your intake of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, especially later in the day.

Now it’s time for my nap—no, my mid-day exercise!

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Why You Shouldn’t Believe Everything You Read in the Newspapers about Medical Studies

One of my favorite journals is called PLOS ONE.  This is a journal which supports open access. That means anyone can access any article in this Journal without paying a fee. Medical studies published in this journal are accessible to anyone.

Most of you probably don’t realize but when you see a medical study quoted in a newspaper article, you can’t actually access the original study on the Internet without paying a hefty fee, usually $20-$40! If you have access to a medical library then you may be able to access the article but for most people the original articles are off-limits without paying large fees.

Plos.org is an organization that supports open access publication of scientific articles.

That’s why I admire them.

Back to my main story. A recent study in PLOS ONE looked at how often medical research results are replicated, meaning does a second or third similar study show the same results.

The researchers in this study looked at 4723 studies that were included in 306 meta-analysis articles. (A meta-analysis is a study where you combine the results of many other research studies in order to get an overview of findings.)   The researchers divided the studies into lifestyle related studies which looked at things like drinking coffee or smoking cigarettes and non-lifestyle studies such as genetic markers for Alzheimer’s. There were 639 lifestyle studies and 4084 non-lifestyle studies.

The question is of the studies that were picked up by newspapers, how many of them were replicated by subsequent studies?  The answer is only about half of the studies held up when tested again in another study. The other thing that was interesting in this article was that when studies failed to replicate, newspapers never reported that failure. Interesting examples included studies that linked a specific gene to depression, schizophrenia, or autism. None of these studies replicated successfully, which you think would be big news and would be reported by many newspapers, but the truth is that not a single newspaper article reported these failures to replicate.

This shows that newspapers don’t have much genuine interest in good science reporting. Good science reporting always involves being skeptical of new and different results, as well as following up on attempts to replicate those results.

So, what does this mean about science results reported in popular media? What it probably means is that if the finding is new and exciting and different, you probably should be highly skeptical of it being true. And the more esoteric the finding is (such as genetic markers) the more skeptical you should be.

For instance, a recent study that was funded by drug companies looked at whether the statin class of medications have side effects or whether these side effects are just a placebo effect. I’ll write more extensively about this study later, but the study’s findings–that only when people knew they were taking statins did they experience side effects– should probably be viewed very skeptically since many other studies have shown side effects from statins and many clinical reports have confirmed the side effects. (And of course any study that is funded by the manufacturer of a drug should be viewed highly skeptically.)

The bottom line is this: finding the truth is hard, and science is no shortcut. Only findings that have been repeated and replicated in numerous studies should be believed.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.