- Oregon University researchers altered genes in mice to be triggered by light
- They targeted area of the brain which show changes in humans who mediate
- Meditation increases theta wave activity even after meditation has ended
- Study found mice that received theta wave stimulation were less anxious
Scientists have created ‘meditating mice’ in a bizarre experiment to reveal the powers of brain training.
Researchers undertook the experiment to see exactly how meditation impacts our mood.
By genetically engineering mice, they were able to show the certain brain waves can dramatically reduce anxiety.
Researchers from the University of Oregon wanted to recreate the brain conditions found in humans who practice mindfulness in mice
Mindfulness has been championed by Hollywood stars like Emma Watson and Angelina Jolie, and scientific studies have shown that it performs better than many other stress busting techniques.
Researchers from the University of Oregon found that changes to the white matter in the brains of volunteers who practice mindfulness may hold the key to its power.
Cognitive-Neuroscientist Cris Niell and his team concluded that changes in theta brainwaves must be responsible, and decided to test the hypothesis on mice.
To do so, the team genetically engineered a special protein in the brains of the mice that causes neurons to fire when they are exposed to light from a laser.
Dr Niell’s team targeted their genetically altered proteins to allow them to produce theta-wave like activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of their mice.
By flashing the laser connected to the mice’s brains, they were able to make the ACC neurons fire at the same pace that they observed in human meditators.
The Oregon team to establish whether alterations in theta-wave activity in the anterior cingulate cortex were the key to the anxiety busting effects of mindfulness
The team found that mice who received the treatment were less anxious than those who didn’t, or who received stimulation in other areas of the brain.
Their tests showed that mice who were exposed to the same theta-wave patterns as revealed in scans of human mediators, were more relaxed.
To test their levels of anxiety, the mice were placed in a box with a dark and illuminated side.
The mice who had ‘meditated’ were more comfortable exploring the light side and to sit up on their hind legs to interact with other mice, according to reports in the Los Angles Times.
Both these behaviours are thought to indicate that the mice were in a relaxed state, while mice who had not received the treatment were more likely to stick to the shadows.
The Oregon team also experimented with different frequencies of theta-wave like stimulation, but found that the most calming effects were evident the closer they stayed to the pace observed in the brains of human meditators, about eight times per second.
Scans of brain activity in people who practice mindfulness show differences in the ACC, among other areas.
The ACC helps to control a wide variety of functions, including our emotions, decision-making processes and impulse control.
While the physical changes were apparent, what was less clear was the exact relationship between increases in white matter and the anti-anxiety abilities of mindfulness.
The Oregon teams tests may provide a starting point for further understanding of the physical mechanisms at work with mindfulness techniques.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, study co-author Cris Niell said: ‘We think of meditation as a human thing, a high-level thing, but we want to examine the low level biology of it.
‘We are not necessarily making the mice meditate, but we are changing the pattern of activity in the brain region.
‘This first publication is a proof of principle, but hopefully in six months or a year, I’ll be talking to you about what it is that actually changes in the brain as a result of meditation.’