Physiological responses normally associated with involuntary autonomic thermoregulation can be voluntarily activated during a tai chi exercise. An experienced tai chi practitioner was asked to focus energy into, and then withdraw energy from the hands while being monitored using infrared-thermography (IR), thermocoupled thermometers and laser Doppler flowmetry. Trials consisted of three focus periods and one withdrawal period, each followed by a rest period. Substantial increases in local palmar and face surface temperatures were observed with IR during focus periods and substantial decreases were observed during the withdrawal period. Fingertip surface baseline temperatures were 31.1°C for one trial, increased by 1.8°C during the focus period, and then decreased by 4.9°C during the withdrawal period. A twofold increase in blood flow through fingertip regions paralleled changes in fingertip surface temperatures during focus periods. The American authors conclude that the changes in regional blood flow and surface temperature appear to be volitional activations of known skin vasomotor mechanisms which are not normally under voluntary control. (Physiologic correlates of t’ ai chi chuan. J Altern Complement Med. 2011 Jan;17(1):77-81).

Norwegian researchers have found that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is an effective treatment for anxiety disorders. Seventy-six patients were randomised to an eight-week MBSR intervention or a wait-list control. Those who completed treatment (eight did not) improved significantly on all outcome measures compared to controls. MBSR had medium to large effect sizes on anxiety and a large effect size for symptoms of depression, and the effect was maintained at six months follow-up. (Patients with anxiety disorders: evaluation in a randomized controlled trial. Behav Res Ther. 2011 Apr;49(4):281-8).

Positive psychological changes that occur during meditation training are associated with increased activity of telomerase, a crucial enzyme responsible for cellular health, according to an important study from the USA. Telomerase is an enzyme that can rebuild and lengthen telomeres, the protective caps of DNA at the end of chromosomes. Telomeres tend to shorten with each cell division and when their length drops below a critical level, the cell can no longer divide properly and eventually dies. Previous studies have suggested that telomerase activity may link psychological stress and physical health, as it is observed to decrease with chronic psychological distress. This new study is a product of the Shamatha Project, one of the first long-term, detailed, matched control-group studies of the effects of intensive meditation training on mind and body. Sixty volunteers attending a three-month meditation retreat were randomised into two groups. Half of the subjects began the retreat, while the remaining half served as the control group. During the retreat, attendees practiced concentration meditation for around six hours a day. Telomerase activity was found to be significantly greater in retreat participants than in controls at the end of the retreat and these increases correlated directly with positive changes in psychological measures including perceived control, neuroticism, mindfulness and purpose in life. (Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomeraseactivity, and psychological. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2010 Oct 29. [Epub ahead of print]).

This paper constitutes a review of data linking telomere length to cognitive stress. Telomeres are the protective caps of repetitive DNA found at the ends of chromosomes. Cells lose the ability to divide as they age because their telomeres become progressively shorter with each cell division. Telomere length has therefore been proposed as a marker of biological ageing. The paper’s authors propose that meditation may have protective effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and increasing positive states of mind, and that this results in hormonal changes that promote telomere maintenance and slow the cellular ageing process. (Can meditation slow rate of cellular ageing? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Aug;1172:34-53).

Brain scans of meditators show that the effects of long-term meditation practice are carried over into non-meditating states. Many meditation techniques aim to increase awareness of ongoing experiences through sustained attention and detachment – observation of these experiences with the intent not to analyse or judge them. With long-term practice, meditators report that these qualities of increased awareness and greater detachment are carried over into everyday life. Japanese investigators hypothesised that the neuroplasticity effects of meditation, which are correlates of increased awareness and detachment, would therefore be detectable in a no-task resting state. Electroencephalography (EEG) was used to compare the brains of qigong meditators and non-meditating controls while at rest. Differences in brain activity between groups were found in the slow delta EEG frequency band (which reflects inhibitory brain functions). In the meditators, appraisal systems were inhibited, while brain areas involved in the detection and integration of sensory information showed increased activation. The authors conclude that the neuroplasticity effects of long-term meditation practice, subjectively described as increased awareness and greater detachment, are carried over into non-meditating states. (Meditators and non-meditators: EEG source imaging during resting. Brain Topogr. 2009 Nov;22(3):158-65).

A team of American scientists has reported that regions of the brain involved in emotional regulation are larger in long-term meditators than in non-meditators. The group used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 22 participants, all of whom had extensively practiced meditation. They compared the scans with those of age-matched controls. Those who meditated had been doing so for between five and 46 years and practised a variety of styles, including zazen, samatha and vipassana. These styles have many practices in common, such as breath control, visualisation and attention to external and internal stimuli. Meditation time ranged from 10 to 90 minutes a session, with most meditators having daily sessions. MRI showed that regular practice of meditation is associated with increased thickness in a subset of cortical regions related to sensory, auditory, visual and internal perception. Meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus, right orbito-frontal cortex, right thalamus and left inferior temporal gyrus — all regions important in emotional regulation and response control. Most of the regions identified in the study were found in the right hemisphere, associated with sustaining attention, which is a central practice of meditation. The authors conclude that larger volumes in these regions might account for meditators’ ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability and engage in mindful behavior. (The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. Neuroimage. 2009 Jan 13. [Epub ahead of print]).