Originally created 04/02/04

Relax: It's good for your brain



Nick Fitts closed his eyes and helped spark a potential revolution in America's schools.

Four years ago, the stressed-out Butler High School senior was part of a group who began practicing Transcendental Meditation and found both immediate and long-term benefits. It has encouraged similar programs throughout the country and has supporters promoting the technique as a potential solution to everything from high blood pressure to school violence to attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder.

The latest evidence, published today in the American Journal of Hypertension, comes from Medical College of Georgia researchers Vernon Barnes, Frank Treiber and Maribeth Johnson. They studied 100 black teenagers who were already showing higher blood pressures and were at greater risk of developing problems later.

"Hypertension is no longer considered to be an adult disease because the incidence of hypertension has risen dramatically in recent years among youth, increasing as much as seven-fold among minority populations, including African Americans," said Dr. Barnes, the lead author. Half of the teenagers were taught meditation and the other half took courses on healthy living. Those who meditated not only had a significant drop in resting blood pressure but also still had the decrease months after the study. Those who took the health course saw little or no benefit.

"The calming effect of the meditation will last for some period of time," Dr. Barnes said. "What we have shown is that blood pressure was reduced, and we know that blood pressure is associated with stress levels. So we can assume that the blood pressure drop is associated with the drop in stress."

In a previous study, the MCG group found that the meditating students had fewer absences and discipline problems than the other group.

Educators are now seeing the value in getting students healthier, said Richmond County School Superintendent Charles Larke, a key supporter of the studies.

"Once the parents agree to the study - to have the children be a part of the study - then I think schools should be eager to do what they can to help students," Dr. Larke said. "We always say that a healthy child is going to be a better student."

"Something that would help the students to stay calm, to create calm in the classrooms, would be very welcome in the schools," Dr. Barnes said.

That's what Sarina Grosswald is hoping for - and already beginning to see - in her exploratory study using the meditation technique with attention-deficit students at the Chelsea School in Silver Springs, Md. The cognitive learning expert was looking for an alternative to the drugs the children normally are prescribed to control their behavior, which she said is caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain.

"Transcendental Meditation balances the same neurotransmitters naturally," she said. "So I thought, 'This is a logical thing to try.'"

And it is something that the parents were asking for too, as she found out from an initial meeting. "One of the first questions one of the parents asked was, 'If our child does well, can we cut back their medication on weekends?'" Dr. Grosswald said.

There was only a little resistance from a few families who mistook the practice for a religion when it was introduced to middle school students at Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse in Detroit, program coordinator Jane Pitt said.

"It does come from another culture, and that's an easy mistake to make," she said. But most did accept it, and a study by University of Michigan researcher Rita Benn found they were happier and more well-adjusted, Ms. Pitt said. And she thinks they have less stress, with all of the physical benefits that entails.

"It affects everything across the board," Ms. Pitt said.

Mr. Fitts was skeptical when Dr. Barnes first explained the technique.

"I was just thinking it was a bunch of bulljive," he said. But four years later, he still does it twice a day.

"It made me a whole better person and much calmer," Mr. Fitts said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213

or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.