Set Your Brain to Meditate

Ursula Bates, Billy O'Connor

Ms Ursula Bates, keynote speaker, UL Research Forum and Professor Billy O'Connor

I was delighted to host the  Fourth Annual  University of Limerick Medical School Research Forum last Wednesday, 19 January, where over twenty researchers from the University of Limerick and local teaching hospitals made presentations on topics ranging from pharmaceuticals, biomedical devices, medical technology, community health, gastrointestinal and vascular surgery, psychiatry and communications.

A leading clinical psychologist and Director of Psychosocial and Bereavement Services at Blackrock Hospice, Dublin, Ms Ursula Bates, delivered the keynote address  Mindfulness Based Interventions in Oncology and Palliative Care and Bereavement-Research Advances”.

Ursula’s talk has prompted me to explore in more detail the nature of mindfulness and how its practice can lead to improved brain function and  mental health.

Let’s start by taking a look at the latest scientific research which has shown that  the practice of meditation  actually changes the shape of the brain, allowing specific areas in the brain to grow or change.  This finding has established a new field of contemplative neuroscience – the brain science of meditation – and helps to explain how meditation acts to improve brain function and mental health.

Mindfulness and mindlessness

Have you ever written a cheque in January with the previous years date? …for most of us the answer is probably yes. Scientists now know that these small mistakes are actually the tip of a mindlessness iceberg!  Mindfulness harnesses one of the great themes in all self help literature – the need to be free of unconsciously accepted habits and norms.

Five qualities of a mindful person

  1. Ability to create new categories
  2. Openness to new information
  3. Awareness of more than one perspective
  4. Attention to process (i.e. ‘doing’) rather than outcome or results.
  5. Trusting in one’s own intuition

Over the coming week we will explore these points in more detail and look at ways in which we can learn to break free from the trap of mindlessness.

Slow protein clearance ‘clue to Alzheimer’s’

Amyloid plaques build up in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease. Image: BBC Health

The BBC News website this week reports on the latest research to suggest that people with Alzheimer’s disease clear a damaging protein from their brains more slowly than those who are healthy. With an ageing population,  dementia, including Alzheimer’s, is currently seen as one of the main health challenges in Ireland the UK.

Amyloid plaques are one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Amyloid is a general term for protein fragments that the body produces normally. Beta amyloid is a protein fragment snipped from an amyloid precursor protein. In a healthy brain, these protein fragments are broken down and eliminated. For some reason, in Alzheimer’s disease, the fragments accumulate to form hard, insoluble plaques.

The findings from this study suggests that people with Alzheimer’s disease clear the damaging protein from their brains 30% more slowly than those who are healthy suggesting that  it is the poor clearance of the protein, not the build-up, that is the problem. Admittedly it’s a small study – just 24 people were looked at, but exciting, and could help the understanding of the disease.

Not meaning to blow my own trumpet (ahem!) but in 2008 my research group showed how the amyloid protein might be toxic in higher concentration …by inappropriately increasing the concentrations of a neurotransmitter called glutamate in the hippocampus – a brain region long associated with Alzheimer’s disease*. It’s well known that high concentrations of glutamate can damage local nerve cells and thus impair the functioning of the hippocampus.

It’s exciting to see the pieces of evidence coming together as the search for an effective treatment for dementia continues apace.

*  O’Shea S.D., Smith I.M., McCabe O.M., Cronin M.M., Walsh D.M., O’Connor W.T. Sensors. 2008; 8(11):7428-7437.

What can neuroscience teach us about teaching?

This Friday 3rd December, I am heading to an International Conference on Engaging Pedagogy (ICEP) in NUI Maynooth. This is an annual event that brings together researchers and practitioners in the field of third-level teaching in order to discuss means and methods of improving student engagement.

I am looking forward to presenting recent findings on how recent findings from neuroscience – the scientific study of the brain – impacts on education. You can view my abstract and those of the other presenters here.