Mindfulness, Brain & Immune Function

An 8 week mindfulness program resulted in positive effects on brain and immune functioning. The study investigated emotion-related brain wave activity and antibody response to vaccination in employees of a biotechnology company in Madison, USA.

The study was published by Davidson et al, University of Wisconsin, in 2003. Forty one employees were randomly allocated to the meditation group (25 employees) and waiting-list control group (16 employees).  Average age of participants was 36. The meditation group underwent Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which was taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is the founder of MBSR. The training consisted of 2 ½ hours once a week for 8 weeks and a one day retreat. Participants in the MBSR group were assigned home work of 1 hour mindfulness practice daily.

Self-report measures of positive and negative affect before and after training was measured. Measures of brain electrical activity (electroencephalogram) were recorded at baseline and in response to a positive and negative emotion induction. Blood was taken to measure antibody levels at baseline and following influenza vaccine.

There was a significant reduction in anxiety (measured by the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory) and decreased negative affect (measured by the Positive and Negative Affect Scale) in the meditation group. Meditators showed greater left-sided anterior activation of the brain. Left sided activation in several anterior regions has been observed when experiencing positive emotion and in those who have a more dispositional positive affect. The meditators had significantly greater rise in antibody levels following vaccination compared with the controls.

This study was well-conducted and adds to the growing literature that mindfulness meditation improves mood. Studies have demonstrated that adverse psychosocial factors can impair immune response. In this study, the authors have shown that mindfulness meditation resulted in a robust increase in antibody levels in response to influenza vaccine.

The study did not have an active control group. A  waiting list control group was used. The MBSR was delivered by the founder of the program and certainly Jon Kabat-Zinn is a charismatic and inspiring teacher who is likely to elicit a strong placebo response. Will other mindfulness teachers achieve similar results?  The study only had 41 participants and so is a small study. It is exceedingly difficult to obtain funding for such studies.

What was quite revealing and intriguing was the self-report by participants of their actual daily practice. Participants practised only an average of 16 minutes and on average only 3 occasions in a week. If the positive results in this study were obtained with only this level of practice, perhaps greater outcomes can be achieved with daily practice.  The findings offer hope to busy stressed individuals, that even if they do some mindfulness practice, they are likely to achieve positive outcomes.

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