Mood, meditation, and the autonomic nervous system

Dr. Chenjie Xia
Assistant Professor
McGill University

There is an increasing body of research suggesting that mood disorders such as depression and anxiety may be related not only to the brain, but to the autonomic nervous system: the system that regulates breathing, heart rate and digestion. At McGill University, Dr. Chenjie Xia, a neurologist and assistant professor, is exploring the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and mood disorders in people with Parkinson’s disease. Her research is made possible through a New Investigator Award from Parkinson Canada National Research Program for $90,000 over 2 years.

“The interesting thing about people with Parkinson’s disease is that they often have both the mood symptoms and autonomic (nervous system) symptoms,” says Xia. “How much is their mood influenced by what’s happening in their brain, versus what’s happening in the autonomic system?”

To answer that question, Xia will ask a group of people with Parkinson’s who get dizzy when they go from sitting to standing, or have other autonomic nervous system problems, to complete questionnaires and undergo some lab tests. She will also use imaging scans of their brains to map any damage from Parkinson’s.

Xia will then analyze the data to correlate any link between the autonomic nervous system problems and mood disturbances. The final step in her project is to enroll some people who have this association in a course teaching them mindfulness, to compare the effects of these programs on improving their autonomic nervous system symptoms, and, hopefully, their mood disorders.

If Xia is successful in proving the association between the autonomic nervous system and mood, and then in showing that meditation improves both, she hopes to give doctors another low-cost treatment to help people with Parkinson’s.

It would also enable doctors to use the changes in nervous system symptoms as a kind of proxy to chart mood disorders, which are currently difficult to measure.

This project is Xia’s first foray into research involving Parkinson’s disease, since she trained primarily as a dementia specialist.

She’s motivated by her desire to help people with Parkinson’s, some of whom she sees as patients, by coming up with additional, effective treatments. “I would be very happy if we could show that meditation improves their mood,” says Xia. “Because there is such a paucity of available and effective treatments, any additional thing can help. If we can make an argument that meditation does help, we can get patients resources and access to a new mode of treatment.”