Getting to the Sources of Fear and Anxiety
Wisconsin emotion researchers have been studying defensive behaviors in monkeys to better understand the related temperament that may put humans at risk, including extreme shyness, excessive anxiety and exaggerated fearfulness. The researchers have found that chronically fearful and anxious monkeys have specific patterns of brain electrical activity as well as elevated levels of two kinds of stress hormones. Their latest study challenges the existing theory that the brain structure called the amygdala controls all fear and anxiety responses. The findings show that in primates, the amygdala is involved in acute fear responses, but doesn't appear to play a role in anxiety responses that may be present from early in life and related to general temperament.
Brain Responses to Antidepressants
A new drug called venlafaxine is proving to be very successful clinically in treating depression, but how exactly does it affect brain function? This study uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques to establish how antidepressants such as venlafaxine can reverse the brain alterations that are associated with depression. The study also explores how treatment with medications may change depressed patients' responses to positive and negative stimuli.
Fearful Temperament Points to Vulnerability
The free-ranging male monkeys of Cayo Santiago, a small island off Puerto Rico, provide a unique opportunity to study biological factors associated with different kinds of emotional and social styles because they normally go through a highly stressful event during adolescence that results in death for 25 percent of them. UW researchers have identified monkeys for whom this process is especially difficult and have found that the animals have fearful temperaments as well as specific brain activity and hormone levels related to elevated stress. Additional physiological measures will be taken to learn which constellation of factors may make some monkeys more vulnerable to stress and more susceptible to disease than others.
Meditation and the Brain
In this small but highly provocative study, the UW-Madison research team also found for the first time, in humans, that a short program in "mindfulness meditation" produced lasting positive changes in both the human brain and the function of the immune system.
The findings suggest that meditation, long promoted as a technique to reduce anxiety and stress, might produce important biological effects that improve a person's resiliency.
Richard Davidson, Vilas Professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW-Madison, led the research team. The study, conducted at the biotechnology company Promega near Madison, will appeared in the Journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
"Mindfulness meditation," often recommended as an antidote to the stress and pain of chronic disease, is a practice designed to focus one's attention intensely on the moment, noting thoughts and feelings as they occur but refraining from judging or acting on those thoughts and feelings. The intent is to deepen awareness of the present, develop skills of focused attention, and cultivate positive emotions such as compassion.
In the UW study, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The experimental group, with 25 subjects, received training in mindfulness meditation from one of its most noted adherents, Jon Kabat-Zinn, (Kabat-Zinn, a popular author of books on stress reduction, developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.) This group attended a weekly class and one seven-hour retreat during the study; they also were assigned home practice for an hour a day, six days a week. The 16 members of the control group did not receive meditation training until after the study was completed.
For each group, in addition to asking the participants to assess how they felt, the research team measured electrical activity in the frontal part of the brain, an area specialized for certain kinds of emotion. Earlier research has shown that, in people who are generally positive and optimistic and during times of positive emotion, the left side of this frontal area becomes more active than the right side does.
The findings confirmed the researchers' hypothesis: the meditation group showed an increase of activation in the left-side part of the frontal region. This suggests that the meditation itself produced more activity in this region of the brain. This activity is associated with lower anxiety and a more positive emotional state.
The research team also tested whether the meditation group had better immune function than the control group did. All the study participants got a flu vaccine at the end of the eight-week meditation group. Then, at four and eight weeks after vaccine administration, both groups had blood tests to measure the level of antibodies they had produced against the flu vaccine. While both groups (as expected) had developed increased antibodies, the meditation group had a significantly larger increase than the controls, at both four and eight weeks after receiving the vaccine.
"Although our study is preliminary and more research clearly is warranted," said Davidson, "we are very encouraged by these results. The Promega employees who took part have given us a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate a real biological impact of this ancient practice."
Davidson, who is integrally involved with the Health Emotions Research Institute at UW, plans further research on the impact of meditation. He is currently studying a group of people who have been using meditation for more than 30 years. His research team is also planning to study the impact of mindfulness meditation on patients with particular illnesses.
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