Newswise — By using a type of meditation developed in China, smokers can reduce their tobacco use even when they don’t intend to do so, according to new research done by Texas Tech University and the University of Oregon.

The study, which looked at the effect of the mindfulness meditation known as Integrative Body-Mind Training (IBMT) on the pathways in the brain related to addiction and self-control, discovered that by practicing the meditation exercise, smokers curtailed their habit by 60 percent. The control group that received a relaxation regimen instead showed no reduction in their smoking.

Results were published in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We found that participants who received IBMT training also experienced a significant decrease in their craving for cigarettes,” said Yi-Yuan Tang, a co-author and director of Texas Tech’s Neuroimaging Institute. “Because mindfulness meditation promotes personal control and has been shown to positively affect attention and an openness to internal and external experiences, we believe that meditation may be helpful for coping with symptoms of addiction.”

IBMT, which involves whole-body relaxation, mental imagery and mindfulness training led by a qualified coach, has long been practiced in China. It differs from other forms of meditation because it depends heavily on the inducement of a high degree of awareness and balance of the body, mind and environment. The meditation state is facilitated through training and trainer-group dynamics, harmony and resonance.

Tang has studied the meditation practice for its potential impacts on a variety of stresses and related changes in the brain, including function and structure, with his co-author, Michael I. Posner, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon. Rongxiang Tang of the University of Texas also co-authored this recent study.

While previous research found meditation may mediate several forms of addiction such as those tied to alcohol, cigarettes and cocaine, they have not been approached with a randomized, controlled design with an active relaxation control, the researchers said.

In this IBMT research project, researchers sought volunteers interested in reducing stress and improving their performance rather than quitting smoking.

Among the volunteers were 27 young-adult smokers who averaged 10 cigarettes a day. Scientists randomly placed 15 of them in the experimental group receiving IBMT training for a total of five hours during a two-week period.

Before and after the experiments, all participants were tested for carbon monoxide levels. Many of the participants only recognized they had reduced smoking after an objective test using measured exhaled carbon monoxide showed the reduction, Tang said.

To identify brain mechanisms that may underlie smoking reduction, the researchers also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during rest to understand the brain areas involved.

According to the fMRI results, smokers before entering IBMT had reduced activity in several parts of their brains that indicate impaired self-control. After two weeks of IBMT, smokers had significantly increased activity in the self-control areas of the brain previously impaired. No significant changes were found among smokers in the non-IBMT control group.

After two and four weeks, five of the responding smokers whose smoking had been significantly reduced after IBMT reported that they were continuing to maintain the improvement.

Researchers noted that IBMT’s apparent ability to enhance self-control and reduce stress could make the practice useful in reducing smoking and craving “even in those who have no intention to quit smoking” as well as treating individuals with other addictions. The meditation regime, they wrote, “does not force participants to resist craving or quit smoking; instead it focuses on improving self-control capacity to handle craving and smoking behavior.”

The researchers, however, caution that the participant pool was small and additional investigation is warranted.

“We cannot say how long the effect of reduced smoking will last,” Posner said. “This is an early finding, but an encouraging one. It may be that for the reduction or quitting to have a lasting effect, smokers will need to continue to practice meditation for a longer time period.”

Tang said that, while more research is needed, the use of IBMT has been proven to help train the practitioner’s body, mind and behavior in positive ways.

“IBMT originates from ancient eastern contemplative traditions developed thousands of years ago in China and Asia because human beings seek to grow themselves,” Tang said. “This is not new. But I started to study its effects in the 1990s and found IBMT can improve attention, self-control, emotion regulation, cognitive performance, immune function and brain plasticity. I’m not only the researcher but also a practitioner, which helps me better understand this phenomenon. I think that – like other ways of changing human behavior, such as exercise and a positive attitude – meditation is one way to help people calm down, reduce stress and improve performance and even understanding the meaning of life.”

Grants from the National Institutes of Health, China’s National Basic Research Program and the U.S. Office of Naval Research supported the study.

For a PDF of the study, contact John Davis.

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Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences