TUESDAY, Nov. 22, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- A new study finds that people skilled at meditation seem able to turn off areas of the brain associated with daydreaming and psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.
Learning more about how meditation works could help advance research into a number of diseases, according to lead author Dr. Judson Brewer, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University.
He and his colleagues used functional MRI to assess brain activity in experienced and novice meditators as they performed three different meditation techniques.
Regardless of the type of meditation, skilled meditators had decreased activity in the brain's default mode network, which has been linked to attention lapses and disorders such as anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the buildup of beta amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease.
The researchers also found that when the default mode network (which consists of the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex) was active, brain regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control were also activated in experienced meditators, but not novices.
This suggests that skilled meditators constantly monitor and suppress the emergence of "me" thoughts and mind wandering. If they become too strong, these two states of mind are associated with diseases such as autism and schizophrenia.
The experienced meditators were able to co-activate the two brain regions both during meditation and while resting, which suggests they have developed a "new" default mode that's more present-centered and less self-centered, the researchers said.
"Meditation's ability to help people stay in the moment has been part of philosophical and contemplative practices for thousands of years," Brewer said in a Yale news release. "Conversely, the hallmark of many forms of mental illness is a preoccupation with one's own thoughts, a condition meditation seems to affect. This gives us some nice cues as to the neural mechanisms of how it might be working clinically."
The study appears Nov. 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has more about meditation.