Scientists Made Mice Meditate, Which Tells Us More About Meditation In Humans

From brain cancer to diabetes, mouse models help scientists learn about the basic science behind the development of many serious medical conditions. Now, a group of researchers at the University of Oregon believe mice can also help us learn about wellness. Their recent study reports it may be possible to prompt mindfulness in a mouse, which could have interesting implications for humans.

The Mysterious Power of Meditation

Although therapists, yoga teachers and religious leaders everywhere have promoted mindfulness for good overall health, the research is still catching up to explain why being mindful may be a good idea, and what happens to your body when you meditate.

A 2016 study brought an interesting conclusion: mindfulness may alter your biology. The Carnegie Mellon University-led paper reports, after a randomized study, that mindfulness meditation training "is associated with improvements in a marker of inflammatory disease risk."

And previous research suggested the brains of people who practice mindfulness meditation are a bit different than those who don't meditate. For example, UCLA researchers have been studying meditation for many years, previously finding, "people who meditate also have stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy."

So what is it about mindfulness that might affect someone's biology?

No Yoga Mat Required

The Oregon researchers wanted to specifically explore what might be changing the white matter in the brain during meditation. Their hypothesis? That targeting one part of the brain with theta-wave activity would mimic the effects of meditation, and put a mouse in a state similar to meditation.

Beforehand, they had "[imposed] rhythms in the mouse anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), by using optogenetics to induce oscillations in activity," the researchers wrote, meaning they bred mice in a particular way to allow light to activate or deactivate neurons. Then, the scientists used light to simulate a meditation schedule that's similar to what many aficionados likely practice: 20 sessions of 30 minutes each, over a period of four weeks. They tested the anxiety level of the mice by putting them in a box with a light side and a dark side and observing whether they chose to stay in the lit area or hide in the dark.

They found that mice who had the brain stimulation went into the light side more often and "made more vertical rears"—a move generally associated with exploratory behavior—than mice in the other groups.

This result lends more credence to the idea that the benefits of meditation come from these particular brain waves. For humans, that could one day mean a way to reap the benefits of meditation without bothering to do it. But if that is possible, science won't be there for some time, so if you'd like to experience less anxiety and more calmness in the meantime, we suggest trying meditation out for yourself!

Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About Meditation

How Does Meditation Change the Brain?

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Meditation can relieve stress, lower blood pressure, and improve someone's mood. 00:05

  2. Frequent meditators seem to develop an especially wrinkly cortex. 01:00

  3. Some lifelong meditators in their 50s and 60s can outperform people in their 20s on tests of visual attention. 01:50

How to Learn Mindfulness Meditation

Try It Yourself: Two Minute Meditation

Written by Haley Otman June 19, 2017

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