If the 20th century will be remembered for outer space exploration and the human genome, the 21st century, I believe, will be known as the "Brain Century." Although voluminous literature has appeared about the brain and its attribute, the infinite mind, our knowledge is still infinitesimal. From the knowledge to date and forthcoming, I foresee that we will, within this century, begin to learn how our frontal cortex, through focused thought, can treat physiological disorders. This would abolish the use of drugs for treating diseases.
Research has shown that a thought in the cerebral cortex, whether spontaneous or generated in response to an environmental stimulus received through our senses, gets expressed via neurochemical transmission at various junctions connecting our tissues and organs to the central nervous system (CNS). Stress stimuli, for example, received through audio and/or visual inputs, are interpreted by the cerebral cortex, and a response is initiated leading to a cascade of neurochemical and hormonal changes that affect our cardiovascular and immune systems.1 Thus, the cerebral frontal cortex controls both the autonomic and the hormonal activities by initiating a particular thought pattern, either in response to the stimulus or as a result of a voluntary thought, as practiced in meditation.
Evidence from imaging techniques, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), has revealed several far-reaching dimensions of the brain. Parallel neuronal circuits for both voluntary and autonomic activities, originating from the prefrontal motor cortex, have been mapped,2 as have hippocampal circuits for storage and memory retrieval.3 The orbitofrontal cortex has been found to activate circuits involved in emotional, moral, and social judgments.4 Conscious control of all motor actions, voluntary and autonomic, has been attributed to the frontal cortex. Most recently, the mesial prefrontal cortex has been determined to contain autonomic control, emotional introspection, and reaction control in response to monetary rewards.5
The cerebral frontal cortex, called brahmand in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Vedic period, was known to Hindu sages as the central command module controlling all life processes. Through meditation, they could alter their physiological activities. Evidence from recent neuroimaging studies has begun to confirm the belief and knowledge of those sages. Transcendental meditation has been shown to reduce catecholamine levels;6 decrease autonomic tone, systolic blood pressure, and pulse;7 and release large amounts of endorphins and vasopressin.
Using fMRI, researchers found that meditating Tibetan Buddhist monks have a highly activated prefrontal cortex and a suppressed parietal cortex, wherein the awareness of ego/id resides. Many other findings in the scientific literature suggest that volitional focusing of thoughts should provide people with the ability to control body physiology in both health and disease.
We know that most drugs used to treat disease either mimic or alter the release of a specific biomolecule, or block its receptor, or induce or inhibit an enzyme or hormone. Thus, the drugs merely alter the quantity and/or the environment of our biomolecules. As imaging and analytical techniques improve, detailed specific data will emerge on cortical regions controlling physiological processes mediated via biomolecules. We may learn how to use focused thoughts to initiate or alter our body biochemistry on an as-needed basis. Patients using yoga to help relieve hypertension is well established, and yoga's potential for controlling epilepsy has been proposed.8
By eliminating drugs, an age of "autotherapeutics" will begin. Trends in biomedical research appear to point toward this direction.
Pushkar N. Kaul is a professor of biological sciences at Clark Atlanta University.
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2. K. Mozier, I. Bereznaya, "Parallel network for volitional control of swallowing in humans," Exp Brain Res, 140:280-9, 2001.
3. J. Molle et al., "Functional networks in emotional and nonmoral social judgments," Neuroimage, 16:696-703, 2002.
4. S.A. Small et al., "Circuit mechanisms underlying memory encoding and retrieval in the long axis of the hippocampal formation," Nat Neurosci, 4:442-9, 2001.
5. B. Knutson et al., "A region of mesial prefrontal cortex tracks monetary rewarding outcomes," Neuroimage, 18:263-72, 2003.
6. J.R. Infante, "Catecholamine levels in practitioners of transcendental meditation," Physiol Behav, 72:141-6, 2001.
7. M.M. Delmonte, "Physiological responses during meditation and rest," Biofeedback Self Regul, 9:181-200, 1984.
8. N. Yardi, "Yoga for control of epilepsy," Seizure, 10:7- 12, 2001.