Buddhist Monks and the Power of Compassion

It can be hard to tell what a normal day of work is like in the Psychology department of Stanford University; but even as neuroeconomist Brian Knutson led Tibetan monks and nuns through the depths of the department’s basement and to the MRI machine, it was obvious that business was hardly going to be usual. But in such a setting, who is to judge?

Knutson has spent much of his career looking at the brain and specifically at the nucleus accumbens—a deeply set area of the brain most commonly associated with risk and reward, anything from the flight-or-fight response to fornicating, eating and the reward that comes with both.  It is this complex area of the brain that can dictate some of the most important decisions a person can make.

Through his experience with the pleasure center of the brain, Knutson wanted to take it a step further and study just how the brain acts when particular activities (namely showing compassion) are acted out by a subject. And when it comes to studying compassion, what better subject than monks and nuns—individuals who cast aside their own self in favor of others and the greater good.

“There are many neuroscientists out there looking at mindfulness, but not a lot who are studying compassion,” Knutson explained about his research. “The Buddhist view of the world can provide some potentially interesting information about the subcortical reward circuits involved in motivation.” By getting a better idea of how an emotion like compassion manifests within the brain, at some point in the future the doors will open to better measure these feelings with scientific evidence.

With support from the Dalai Lama (Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education received a generous donation as seed money from His Holiness after a 2005 visit to the campus), the study was well underway. Each subject received a $500 an hour compensation, an expensive process considering that each were made to lay in the MRI machine for somewhere between eight to 12 hours a day for at least three days 

As per the process, Knutson and his team of colleagues asked each of the monks and nuns to lie down in the MRI scanner. At first, pictures of human faces were flashed before their eyes; Knutson asked for each to consider some of the faces neutrally and to show compassion towards others. For these latter pictures, the monks and nuns considered the person’s situation and life outside of being simply a photograph. Pictures of paintings were next projected above them, and the subjects were asked to weigh in on those paintings they enjoyed.

However, what the subjects were unaware of at this time was that the researchers had subliminally inserted pictures of the previous faces between the pictures of the paintings. “Reliably they like the art more if the faces they showed compassion to came before it,” explained Knutson. “Which leads to a hypothesis that there is some sort of compassion carryover happening.”

As with most research, this evidence is just the beginning. Yet even this is enough to show that there are certain correlations between our emotions and the way we view the world. What this could mean for medicine is tough to tell, but if anything is concrete it is that feeling and doing good is more than just a moment, but rather something that can shape the way we see the world and choose to live in it.


Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tibetan_monk_in_Tashilhunpo_Monastery.jpg

Switching Off Cell Death: A Way to Fight Alzheimer’s?

It is never easy to lose someone you care about, and it may be even harder when you are forced to lose that person slowly. For many who have experienced Alzheimer’s first hand, those who have been a witness to the mental decline of another, saying goodbye is easier said than done as the process of losing is never clear cut. The truth is that when it comes to these types of degenerative brain disorders, there are more questions than answers; but as recent research has proven, we may be getting some clarification soon.

While writing for the journal Nature, British scientists believe that they are a step closer to understanding neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (CJD). Through their research with mice with prion disease (the mouse equivalent of CJD), this group of scientists have found a way to effectively stop the cell death that would otherwise have occurred in and caused irreparable damage to the brain.

Whether human of mouse, when the brain experiences the type of degradation wrought by neurodegenerative disease proteins within the brain fold improperly in on itself. As they continue to “mis-fold,” these proteins begin to accumulate and form plaque in the brain—a major component of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Addressing this unusual behavior, the scientists were able to get a clearer view of how the cells in the brain are turned off and die. Professor Giovanna Mallucci, of the toxicology unit at the University of Leicester, who led the research explains, “What’s exciting is the emergence of a common mechanism of brain cell death, across a range of different neurodegenerative disorders, activated by the different mis-folded proteins in each disease.”

As proteins morph into these incompatible forms, the brain’s natural reaction is to act in self-defense—in this case, the brain would begin to switch off the production of new proteins. Once the problem is solved, it will switch back on again. However, in mice with prion disease this defense mechanism is cancelled leaving the disease to progress and the brain ill equipped to take on the increasing threat. Searching for a remedy to this problem, scientists decided to inject a protein into the brains of the mice that would turn off or block the “off” switch, thus restarting the mechanism that would stop the production of these proteins.

And just as soon as this method was employed, the damaged brain cells were protected and protein levels were reinstated. What is more, the brain cells were able to signal back and forth to one another—as if the damage never occurred. In the end it was noted that the mice from the experiments not only lived, but they lived longer. “While neurodegenerative diseases can have many different triggers, this study suggests that they may act through a common mechanism to damage nerve cells,” explained Eric Karran, the director of research at the charity group Alzheimer’s Research UK. “The findings present the appealing concept that one treatment could have benefits for a range of different diseases.”

While the research is still ongoing, the results are huge. As the work continues, it is clear that we are seeing steps in a positive direction. According to molecular neurobiologist Professor Roger Morris, of the King’s College in London, “There are good reasons for believing this response, identified with prion disease, applies also to Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.” With an estimated 18 million people across the globe diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and approximately one in 100 people over 60 years affected with Parkinson’s, the time for progress could not be any more important.


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UPDATE: An Answer to the Medical Mystery in LeRoy, New York?

In one of recent years’ most interesting medical anomalies, at least a dozen high school students suddenly and without explanation began experiencing unusual changes to their bodies and behavior.  Violent tics, unusual facial spasms, and vocal outbursts were among the Tourette’s-like symptoms emerging amongst the student population of LeRoy High School in upstate New York.

It all began in August of last year, when Katie Krautwurst began contorting uncomfortably, seemingly out of nowhere.  Not long after, her friend and fellow cheerleader, Thera Sanchez, started displaying the same symptoms.  In practically no time at all, upwards of 18 students from the same high school had come down with the mysterious disease.  While the majority of those afflicted were girls, this evidence of medical uncertainties surfaced in one male student and one female teacher (aged 36). 

For months, the jury was out on what sparked this phenomenon, and in the middle of this uncertainty, hypotheses came from just about every corner of the scientific community; and as the curiosity grew around this small town of less than 8,000, numerous media outlets were quick to follow.  And since August, residents have waded in fear that something was in the water, something was in the soil, or that something had suddenly taken over.

But recent news has just reported that at least two of the afflicted teens are showing not just improvements in their condition, but are actually better.  Dr. Jennifer McVigh, of the Dent Neurologic Institute, who has been treating some of the LeRoy girls, explains that two girls have been cured and others are likely on the way to the same recovery.  “There are two of the girls that are all better and there are three more that are just there,” stated McVigh.

McVigh believes that this great turn of events issued from her treatment of conversion disorder—a psychological disorder which affects a person’s mind and subsequent behavior.  Other researchers and journalists are now leaning towards the possibility that the situation in LeRoy stemmed from a psychosocial phenomenon that caused the afflicted to (unknowingly) react physically to unconscious stimuli. 

In an in depth article provided by the New York Times, many of those stricken in LeRoy have more than their fair share of trials and tribulations in their young lives.  Many had come from broken homes and less than ideal financial situations—a huge factor that can lead to stress-induced tics and outbreaks.  What is more, many of these students were friends, fellow cheerleaders, and classmates, creating a tight-knit group for which “transmission” could act quickly.

As the media reported on the events in the small town and the town’s fame continued to rise, many eyes were now set on LeRoy, adding fuel to the flame.  In a sense showing that with enough positive reinforcement, eventually the desired outcome will appear.  But many were not content to hear that it was hysteria that had plagued their town and their children. Nobody wants to be accused of acting it up for the cameras.  And despite the negative stigma attached to the “mass hysteria” (think: Salem witch trials), this is an actual treatable disorder.  According to Elaine Showalter, a feminist critic, hysteria outbreaks necessitate three elements: theorists, susceptible patients, and an understanding environment—and LeRoy had these in spades.

Simon Wessely, chairman of the department of psychological medicine at King’s College in London, wrote in 1995: “Things only go wrong when the nature of an outbreak is not recognized, and a fruitless and expensive search for toxins, fumes and gases begins. Anxiety, far from being reduced, increases.  It is only then that long-term psychological problems may develop.”  Samples taken from the town’s water supply, along with dirt from the school track, have come up as nothing.  It is true that with the right amount of scare and hubbub a catalyst for fear can emerge; and in the midst of this fear, anything can happen.

This episode in LeRoy, New York, is sure to be a mystery for some time; but as news of the recovery of those distressed, we can all be happy that things are starting to get better.


Photo Credit: nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/harrypottersworld/images/details/OB0068.jpg

Study Reveals the Transformative Quality of Beginner Meditation

A recent study released in the Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging journal shows a strong correlation between meditation and improved stress, memory, empathy, and overall happiness of participants. The study was conducted over a period of 8 weeks as 16 participants spent 30 minutes a day in meditation. Their brains were scanned over a two week period before the program and a two week period once the program was completed. During the same two week periods, people who were not meditating also had their brains scanned as a control. None of the participants were experienced meditators.

The meditation program was one designed by Jon Kabat-Zinn called the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction(MBSR) program. Participants enroll in a weekly course where they are taught to focus on mindfulness throughout the day and learn how to meditate. Mindfulness practices are designed to increase one’s awareness of their body, actions, thoughts, emotions, surroundings and environment. These practices, combined with meditation, often enhance one’s capacity to concentrate, attention span, and memory.

Previous studies following the MBSR program have recorded participant’s decreased stress levels, more favorable emotions and reduced physical pain, among other benefits. However, reports on the program were based primarily upon the testimony of participants and did not use brain imaging technology to document the precise brain alterations as they occurred. Alternatively, the new study found intriguing results centralized in specific regions of the brain through in-lab testing. 

The study found notable alterations in the hippocampus, posterior cingulated cortex, cerebellum and temporal-parietal region. These regions displayed an increased density of gray matter which the scientists considered a positive indication of their well-being. People experiencing mood deficiencies or depression, for instance, often have below average gray matter in the hippocampus. Those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder also frequently exhibit decreased gray matter in the hippocampus. A correlation is not surprising as the hippocampus plays an important role in regulating emotion, memory and learning. The cerebellum also takes part in monitoring human emotions, while the temporal-parietal region and the posterior cingulated cortex are engaged in empathy and the ability to imagine the perspective of others. Those who did not participate in the MBSR program did not share these results. 

Britta Hölzel, the study’s director, notes that their conclusions are still speculative but admits the study gives a positive impression. Denser gray matter appears to correlate with the strength and utilization of those regions of the brain. Thus, subjects who participated in the MBSR training experienced increased mood control, emotional stability and elevation, improved empathy and reduced stress. 

While numerous studies have been conducted to determine the effects of meditation on the human mind, Hölzel’s research contributes singular information on the effects of brief, novice meditation. Although many studies have returned positive results denoting the value of meditation, often these tests have been conducted on more experienced yogis. Thus, the results have had far fewer implications on the relative physical, mental, emotional and overall health impacts of meditating on those just beginning meditation. This new research is a testament to the marked effect only a few weeks of regular meditation can have on portions of the human mind. 

The study is also unique in its documentation of the before and after effects of meditation. Previous studies have primarily focused on comparing the brains of expert yogis to those of average, non-meditating peoples. Their results have shown that the yogi brain is indeed markedly different from others. However, studies had yet to show the transitional impact of meditation on human minds regarding the brain’s physical structure. 

Hölzel remarked, “I think what’s really positive and promising about this study is that it suggests our well-being is in our hands.” The elasticity of the brain was indeed demonstrated in this research, which means mental and physical well-being are truly accessible, even reasonable, to achieve.  

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