Researchers from the University of Siena in Italy and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital/Harvard Medical School studied the neuro-anatomical and psychological impact of an 8-week mindfulness based stress reduction program (MBSR) on 23 subjects who were new to meditation.

The investigators analyzed several morphometric indexes at both cortical and subcortical brain levels, as well as multiple psychological dimensions, before and after the 8-week training, comparing the meditators to age-gender matched subjects.

The study found a significant increase in cortical thickness in the right insula and the somatosensory cortex of the MBSR trainees, coupled with a notable reduction of several psychological indices related to worry, state anxiety, depression and alexithymia (which is difficulty identifying emotions in self or others, resulting in poor social attachment and capacity for empathy).

Most importantly, an interesting correlation was observed between the increase in right insula thickness and the decrease in alexithymia levels during the MBSR training.

Moreover, a multivariate pattern analysis resulted in identifying a cluster of regions more responsive to MBSR training across subjects.

Taken together, these findings documented the significant impact of a brief MBSR training on brain structures, as well as strongly supporting the idea of MBSR as a valuable tool for alexithymia modulation. This in turn offers plausible neurobiological evidence of a major role played by the right insula in mediating the observed psychological changes.

Citation: Santarnecchi E, DArista S, Egiziano E, Gardi C, Petrosino R, Vatti G, Reda M, Rossi A. Santarnecchi E. PLoS One. 2014 Oct 20;9 (10).