Mindfulness for Parkinson's - What Does the Research Say?

In my time working with People with Parkinson's (PWP), I’ve been impressed by how research-savvy the community is! Far more than many other medical diagnoses, PWPs tend to be well-informed about the current scientific research and actively engaged in studying it. The community shares information and promotes further research. In this post, I’ll introduce research on the effectiveness of mindfulness for Parkinson's.

History of mindfulness in the U.S

Although the word “mindfulness” comes from an old English word, myndful, meaning “of good memory,” its meaning in American culture today can be traced in large part to the work of a single individual. Jon Kabat-Zinn was born in 1944 and earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology at MIT in 1971.1 Kabat-Zinn had one foot in the world of medical research, but he had another foot in the world of Eastern practices like meditation and yoga, and he wondered if he could draw the two worlds together.

In the late-1970s, he started the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and created a new program, named Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR is an 8-week program in which participants meet once a week for two hours, have daily homework practices, and do a 1-day mindfulness retreat. The program teaches mindful awareness through body scans, mindfulness meditation, and simple yoga exercises.

Decrease in pain

Although there are now tons of programs and methods for learning mindfulness, I highlight the history of MBSR because it became the first standard platform for mindfulness research, has spread around the world, and continues to be the basis of studies. Many of the program’s early participants were people with chronic pain.

The research results were impressive. In a 1982 study, over half of the participants reported a greater than 50% reduction in pain at 10 weeks. The program’s success in this area led to further studies looking at the effects of mindfulness for cancer patients, people with chronic anxiety or mood disorders, people with substance abuse problems or eating disorders, and many other issues.

In 1980 there were not many research studies on mindfulness. However, by 2010 there were over 350 such studies, and that exponential growth has continued. (To learn more about this body of research check out the American Mindfulness Research Association.) The large volume of studies now includes well-over 100 randomized controlled trials.

Mindfulness for Parkinson's

But what about Parkinson’s disease? Unfortunately, there have only been a few studies examining mindfulness for Parkinson's to-date. In 2013, a group of researchers published a paper in Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery in which they determined that a mindfulness-based intervention for PWP lead to structural changes in brain areas affected by Parkinson's.2

Another research project published a qualitative analysis of a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for PWP in 2010.3 In the case of another movement disorder, Multiple Sclerosis, a 2010 article in Neurology found improved quality of life, less depression, and less fatigue from a mindfulness training.4

Research on mindful movement for Parkinson's

If we extend the concept of “mindfulness” to include mindful movement (something which is suggested by the inclusion of yoga in MBSR), more Parkinson’s studies become available. Theoretical research is currently underway to better understand the intersection of mindfulness and movement.5 A large study on Tai Chi for Parkinson's disease yielded impressive results for postural stability, and was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2012.6

A more recent study from Brazil found quality of life improvements in PWP from a twice-weekly, six-month course in the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education, which teaches body awareness and mindful attention to movement.7

Compared to other medical areas, such as chronic pain or oncology, the effect of mindfulness on movement disorders is only beginning to be studied. On the other hand, well-structured mindfulness programs have been proven to be quite effective in areas that directly affect Parkinson's, such as reducing stress levels, combating depression, and refining body image. While more research on mindfulness for Parkinson's is necessary, the preliminary and related results are promising!

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