Richard Davidson and his collaborators
(open source, with useful graphics) inject a note of sanity into evaluating widely reported claims of brain changes induced by mindfulness meditation techniques. They note in their introduction:
Findings from a few small studies have permeated popular media with the notion that a few weeks of training in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can lead to measurable changes in brain structure and have been cited over 3200 times, combined. However, there is a lack of replication (conceptual or direct) or confirmatory analysis of these findings in a fully randomized trial. Moreover, a recent meta-analysis found that the proportion of high-quality publications in this domain have not improved over time, although there are a growing number of high-quality studies being conducted.
Studies purporting to show changes in brain structure following the popular, 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course are widely referenced despite major methodological limitations. Here, we present findings from a large, combined dataset of two, three-arm randomized controlled trials with active and waitlist (WL) control groups. Meditation-naïve participants (n = 218) completed structural magnetic resonance imaging scans during two visits: baseline and postintervention period. After baseline, participants were randomly assigned to WL (n = 70), an 8-week MBSR program (n = 75), or a validated, matched active control (n = 73). We assessed changes in gray matter volume, gray matter density, and cortical thickness. In the largest and most rigorously controlled study to date, we failed to replicate prior findings and found no evidence that MBSR produced neuroplastic changes compared to either control group, either at the whole-brain level or in regions of interest drawn from prior MBSR studies.
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