Monday, April 13, 2015

MINDFULNESS AND PARKINSON’S DISEASE

April of every year is Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month.

Parkinson’s disease is a chronic, progressive degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. The disease involves the malfunctioning and eventual destruction of neurons in the brain---primarily in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra---some of which ordinarily produce dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter that sends messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. So, as the disease progresses, the amount of dopamine decreases, leaving a person unable to control movement normally.  


The cause of Parkinson's disease is as yet unknown, and although there is presently no ‘cure’ as such for the illness there are a number of treatment options, such as medication and surgery, that can assist---sometimes greatly---in the management and progression of the disease.

Now, past research has shown that exercise can, among other things, significantly reduce symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and help a person move and feel better, but there is also some research to suggest that the regular practice of mindfulness can also assist in the management of the disease.

Long-term mindfulness practitioners increase the working capacity of the brain and connections within the brain, and increase brain matter than non-practitioners. This suggests mindfulness may keep brains young and healthy. An 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction training program has been found to make measurable changes in the brain structures associated with learning and memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. Even as little as 4 days of mindfulness training can enhance a person’s ability to sustain focused attention and also effect significant improvements in mood, visuospatial processing, working memory and cognition.

Norman Doidge MD [pictured left], author of The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing, is a Canadian-born psychiatrist. A leading expert in neuroscience and medicine, Doidge has made some fascinating discoveries on the power of the mind and brain neuroplasticity.

Doidge gives the example of a friend of his with Parkinson’s disease who was able to normalize his walking pattern by slowing down his walking, using extreme ‘meditative’ concentration to break apart each step, and practising mindfulness for a full year. The ‘secret’ is to focus one’s conscious ‘bare’ attention and 'choiceless' awareness on one’s movement.

Bare attention is a way of looking at experience that adds nothing to, and takes nothing away from, the raw experience itself. Bare attention makes no attempt to change things in any way but simply sees and notices what is---without any attachment or identification. Likewise, choiceless awareness is being aware of whatever is, that is, objectively seeing things-as-they-really-are---things both inner and outer---without becoming attached to anything. In other words, there is no choosing to be aware of one thing but not another (eg tremors or other bodily sensations or thoughts). Instead, you are calmly and dispassionately aware of the content of every experience. ‘Unadorned observation,’ it has been called.

Doidge’s research demonstrates that in time brain areas not affected by the disease take over functions previously controlled by areas of the brain adversely affected by the disease. Tremors disappeared as a result of the man becoming more aware of his movement.

I should also mention that Doidge’s friend engaged regularly in other recognized brain stimulation activities including crosswords, Sudoku, bridge, chess, poker, dominoes, and recording CDs of himself singing and learning French.

Mindfulness could also be expected to assist a person with Parkinson’s disease to acknowledge and accept their thoughts, feelings, emotions and bodily sensations and to deal with anxiety and stress in a positive way.



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