July 6, 2004

Pagnoni project studies brainwaves in Zen


By Janet Christenbury

Zen meditation is an ancient spiritual practice that promotes awareness and presence through the undivided engagement of mind and body. For thousands of years, Buddhists and practitioners of many other religious traditions have made meditation a common practice.

Now, Emory researchers are investigating the effects of Zen meditation and how the brain functions during meditative states. By determining the brain structures involved in meditation and people whose activity is gradually changed in the course of long-term meditative practice, researchers hope this training could one day be used as a complementary treatment for neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

"In contrast to the common conceptualization of meditation as a relaxation technique, we think that meditation could be more usefully characterized as training in the skillful deployment of attention and inhibitory control," said Giuseppe Pagnoni, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and lead researcher for the study.

"We chose to investigate Zen meditation because, from an experimental point of view, it is a very simple technique, the quintessence of many other meditative variations," Pagnoni continued. "You concentrate on the correct posture and the coming and going of your breathing, and repeatedly come back to these 'attentional supports' every time you find yourself distracted by thoughts, memories, sensations, etc. We believe people who have undergone rigorous training in Zen meditation might display a functional modification of the neural circuits underlying the performance of attentional control and behavioral switching. Therefore, we are looking closely at the brain to understand which areas support the mental processes mustered by meditation and how these relate to the existing literature on neuroimaging of cognitive functions."

Researchers will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to acquire images of the brain during a simplified experiment designed to tap into the same resources activated by meditation. The fMRI technique determines which areas of the brain are activated during specific mental or motor tasks. The pilot study is being funded by Emory's Center for Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Neurodegenerative Diseases.

The study will enroll 30 participants: 15 who are trained in and have practiced Zen meditation every day for at least three years, and 15 who have never meditated. The latter 15 will serve as the control group. Each participant will undergo brain scans while engaging in sustained concentration on breathing, a condition that will be interrupted at random times by performing simple cognitive tasks. A second fMRI scan will analyze an undisturbed concentrative state.

"This study employs a design that is not so common in neuroimaging research but is standard procedure in experimental physics: Instead of studying directly the state of the system, we intentionally perturb it and then observe the consequences," Pagnoni said. "While meditation has been the subject of previous scientific effort, this is the first time, to our knowledge, that this particular approach has been employed in a brain imaging study. Also, we chose to examine an aspect of meditation--namely, its effect on attentional processing--that has not been extensively studied, given that the majority of the research has focused on the relaxing properties of meditation."

While the researchers are looking at the entire brain, they are paying special attention to certain areas, including the anterior cingulate and the prefrontal cortex, which are involved in inhibitory control, decision making and emotional processing; the striatum and basal ganglia, associated with attentional and behavioral switching and rewards; and the orbitofrontal portion of the frontal lobe, which has been related to mood.

"If we can identify which brain structures are selectively modulated by meditation training and in which direction, then the next step would be the testing of a meditation program in patients whose neurological conditions include an abnormal functioning of the same or related areas," Pagnoni said. "This pilot study will help us learn more about the neural correlates of meditation training and will lay the groundwork for a future, more extensive research project."

Participants in this study must be between the ages of   35 and 50. For more information, contact Megan Martin at 404-727-3087 or at mmarti2@emory.edu.