Can Mice Meditate? These Neuroscientists Think So

Researchers at the University of Oregon designed "The Mouse Meditation Project" to explore the connection between stress, brain activity, and meditation.

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It turns out, mice cannot meditate without serious human intervention. And, in the name of science, with the aim of learning more about how meditation actually works to decrease stress, researchers at the University of Oregon designed the “mouse meditation project.”

We know that meditation and mindfulness are consistently linked to reductions in stress, anxiety and psychological distress. But, despite this emerging research, we still know little about the brain mechanisms and processes associated with these positive effects. Prior neuroimaging studies point to increased activity in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a structure involved in emotional regulation and cognitive control, as one potential avenue for inquiry.

Enter the mouse study, nicknamed the “mouse meditation project,” designed to explore the connection between meditation, brain waves (or oscillations), and the stress response. To do this researchers attempted to replicate the brain rhythms in the ACC previously detected in people during integrative body-mind training (IBMT). Then they manipulated a mouse’s brain waves to approximate those of meditating humans. They did this by introducing a special protein that, when exposed to light via cortical stimulation, oscillated at the same rate as brains of human meditators, thus simulating brain waves previously observed in humans during meditation.

The researchers found that recreating the rhythmic patterns of the human brain during meditation – approximately eight oscillations per section – yielded the greatest calming effects.

After 4 weeks of “meditation training”, mice were placed in a box containing a light and a dark side— a technique for measuring anxiety. Mice “meditators” demonstrated greater exploratory behaviors and curiosity than non-meditating controls. This indicates increased relaxation and lower levels of stress. The researchers found that recreating the rhythmic patterns of the human brain during meditation – approximately eight oscillations per section – yielded the greatest calming effects.

This study provides additional evidence of how meditation may alter neural function, and represents the first proof of principle that specific patterns of oscillation within the brains of meditators may be related to decreased stress and anxiety and increased subjective wellbeing.

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