A new study suggests practicing transcendental meditation (TM) improves brain function and reduces symptoms among students diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Researchers investigated the effects of the meditation practice on task performance and brain functioning in 18 ADHD students, ages 11 to 14 years old.
The study was conducted over a period of six months in an independent school for children with language-based learning disabilities in Washington, D.C., and is published in Mind & Brain, The Journal of Psychiatry.
Neuroscientist Fred Travis, Ph.D., and other researchers performed electroencephalogram (EEG) tests to measure and record the electrical activity of students’ brains as they performed a demanding computer-based visual-motor task. Successful performance on the task required attention, focus, memory, and impulse control.
The study showed improved brain functioning, increased brain processing, and improved language-based skills among ADHD students practicing the meditation technique.
In addition, students were administered a verbal fluency test. This test measured higher-order executive functions, including initiation, simultaneous processing, and systematic retrieval of knowledge. Performance on this task depends on several fundamental cognitive components, including vocabulary knowledge, spelling, and attention.
Experts say that EEG measurement can help to diagnose ADHD as the ratio of theta brain waves can be used to accurately identify students with ADHD from those without it.
“In normal individuals, theta activity in the brain during tasks suggests that the brain is blocking out irrelevant information so the person can focus on the task,” said Travis. “But in individuals with ADHD, the theta activity is even higher, suggesting that the brain is also blocking out relevant information.”
And when beta activity, which is associated with focus, is lower than normal, Travis added, “it affects the ability to concentrate on task for extended periods of time.”
“Prior research shows ADHD children have slower brain development and a reduced ability to cope with stress,” said co-researcher William Stixrud, Ph.D.
“Virtually everyone finds it difficult to pay attention, organize themselves and get things done when they’re under stress,” he said. “Stress interferes with the ability to learn—it shuts down the brain. Functions such as attention, memory, organization, and integration are compromised.”
Why the TM Technique
“We chose the TM technique for this study because studies show that it increases brain function. We wanted to know if it would have a similar effect in the case of ADHD, and if it did, would that also improve the symptoms of ADHD,” said principal investigator Sarina J. Grosswald, Ed.D.
Stixrud added, “Because stress significantly compromises attention and all of the key executive functions such as inhibition, working memory, organization, and mental flexibility, it made sense that a technique that can reduce a child’s level of stress should also improve his or her cognitive functioning.”
The transcendental meditation technique is an effortless, easy-to-learn practice, unique among categories of meditation. “TM does not require concentration, controlling the mind or disciplined focus—challenges for anyone with ADHD,” Grosswald added.
Ongoing research suggests the TM technique is effective for reducing stress and anxiety, and improving cognitive functioning among the general population.
“What’s significant about these new findings,” Grosswald said, “is that among children who have difficulty with focus and attention, we see the same results. The fact that these children are able to do TM, and do it easily, shows us that this technique may be particularly well-suited for children with ADHD.”
TM produces an experience of restful alertness, associated with higher metabolic activity in the frontal and parietal parts of the brain, indicating alertness, along with decreased metabolic activity in the thalamus, which is involved in regulating arousal, and hyperactivity.
With regular practice, this restfully alert brain state, characteristic of the TM technique, becomes more present outside of meditation, allowing ADHD students to attend to tasks.
“In a sense,” Travis said, “the repeated experience of the transcendental meditation technique trains the brain to function in a style opposite to that of ADHD.”