Mass General Study Shows How Meditating Changes Brain Structure

Could meditating for 30 minutes a day actually change your brain structure? Sara Lazar, PhD, a neuroscientist at Mass General, has compiled brain imaging data suggesting that it can. In a controlled study of two groups of people who had never meditated before, Dr. Lazar found significant growth in brain volume in the group that participated in an eight-week ‪#‎meditation‬ program relative to the control group. The main areas of growth included regions having to do with learning, cognition, empathy and compassion. The amygdala, the part of the brain related to anxiety, fear and stress, also got smaller in the group that meditated.

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Does Gout Play a Role in Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease?

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Could gout—a painful form of inflammatory arthritis—play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease? In a large study in the United Kingdom, Mass General researchers found that patients who previously had gout had a 24% lower risk of ‪#‎Alzheimers‬ disease.

Gout is caused by high levels of uric acid in the blood, which can cause complications such as kidney stones and heart problems, but uric acid also has strong anti-oxidative properties, which can help to repair cell damage. More research is now needed to confirm that uric acid plays a role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease, and if so, to test its efficacy as a possible treatment. Dr. Hyon Choi, director of Clinical Epidemiology at Mass General, is lead author of the study.

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Looking for Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease Before it Strikes

By working with a genetically linked group of 5,000 individuals in Colombia who have a significantly higher predisposition to early-onset ‪#‎Alzheimer‬’s disease than any other population in the world, Mass General researcher Yakeel T. Quiroz, PhD (pictured here), is hoping to better understand the subtle changes in the brain that take place prior to an individual developing noticeable signs of the disease. By identifying these changes, it may one day be possible to start preventive measures before the disease takes hold.

Dr. Quiroz, a Colombian native, recently received an National Institutes of Health (NIH) Early Investigators Award to continue her research.

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This is What Tasting Looks Like

Dr. Seok-Hyun (Andy) Yun from the Wellman Center of Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital was part of a global team of researchers that was able to observe live taste buds in action for the first time using a specially designed microscope system operated by Dr. Yun and his laboratory team. The study revealed that rather than different tastes being assigned to distinct regions of the tongue, each taste bud has cells for all tastes. The study also suggests the taste process is not limited to the taste buds, but involves a complex interaction between food and an individual’s blood composition.

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MGH/MIT Study Identifies Neurons Important for Inductions of Natural REM Sleep

A joint research team from Mass General and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may be one step closer to understanding the science of sleep.

Using a scanning method that can activate light-sensitive proteins, the researchers found that the activation of cholinergic neurons (those that release the neurotransmitter acetylcholine) in two structures of the brain stem are key to inducing REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep in lab models.

Both REM and non-REM sleep perform important functions, but current sleep aids cannot effectively replicate the cycling between each stage that occurs during natural sleep. By gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms that underlie sleep, investigators may be able to develop more effective remedies for sleep disorders.

Dr. Christa Van Dort of the Mass General Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine and MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences is lead author of the study.

Photo caption: Confocal images of cells in an area of the brain stem called the PPT show expression of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (red) and of a light responsive protein (green). The merged image on the right shows neurons expressing both (yellow). (Christa Van Dort, PhD)

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