A small pilot study published in the journal Current Issues in Education suggests that for children diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, the twice-daily practice of transcendental meditation in school improves attention and reduces stress, anxiety and impulsive behavior. And unlike other forms of meditation, which require levels of concentration that are difficult for most with ADHD, the students in the Washington, D.C.-area study were able to learn, master and practice transcendental meditation easily, said the study's lead author.
The study is the latest in a burgeoning effort to subject the ancient practice of meditation to rigorous testing to gauge whether it has measurable health benefits. Among the leading research centers engaged in such testing, including for those with ADHD, is Semel Institute's Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.
A group of 10 children between ages 11 and 14, diagnosed with ADHD and attending a school for those with learning disabilities in Silver Spring, Md., participated in the pilot study. Eight in the group -- which consisted of nine boys and a girl -- were medicated for ADHD, and two were not. But all, by their parents' and teachers' reports, had significant attention deficits or behavioral and emotional problems in spite of specialized instruction and medication regimes.
The findings are highly limited because the study was very small and did not measure the performance of a comparison, or control, group that did not meditate. Instead, it compared teacher reports and students' self-assessments and performance on a wide range of cognitive tests and surveys before and after three months of twice-daily sessions of TM for 10 minutes each.
TM differs most notably from other forms of meditation by the practitioner's repeated use of a single sound as a means to quiet the mind. The use of this sound with no outward meaning has the effect of turning the mind inward, said lead author Sarina J. Grosswald, a device which makes it "so much easier for these kids" than other means of settling the mind. For those with attention difficulties, especially, "it's very hard to silence the mind by trying to silence the mind," added Grosswald.
At the end of the three months, both students assessing their own state of mind and teachers assessing the participants' behavior reported reduced levels of stress, anxiety and ADHD symptoms, greater than would be expected in a random gauge of students' symptoms. On widely used measures of executive functioning -- including the ability to maintain focus on a task, shift attention when necessary, keep information in short-term memory and plan and organize course material -- the students practicing TM saw substantial gains, the study found.
The study's authors included neuropsychologist William R. Stixrud and Fred Travis, director of the Maharishi University of Management's Center on Brain, Consciousness and Cognition. The team noted that for many children diagnosed with ADHD, stress and anxiety may underlie behavior and attention problems. Although children's ADHD symptoms span a broad spectrum of behaviors, targeting stress and anxiety through the use of transcendental meditation may have similarly broad effects, they surmised.
Given the ease with which the targeted students picked up and practiced TM, the authors suggested that such meditation could also be effective in helping students without ADHD better manage the stresses and anxieties of their school days, improving their functioning all around. Currently, slightly more than a dozen U.S. school systems have integrated the practice of TM into their school day, said Grosswald.
Grosswald added that she and fellow researchers have followed their pilot study with another that compares changes in the performance of students with ADHD and practicing TM with that of students with ADHD who do not, and that measures both groups' brainwave activity with electroencephalography, or EEG. One finding that has emerged clearly: that during tests and problem-solving, ADHD sufferers who practiced TM showed much broader activation of brain regions -- including the brain's seat of executive function, the prefrontal cortex -- than did kids who did not.
During the school day, says Grosswald, students with such patterns of coordinated brain activity would probably find it easier to focus their attention on classwork, resist impulses that could be disruptive, reduce stress and anxiety and even make the transition from school to home easier.
-- Melissa Healy