Researchers Watch Brain Regions Light Up During Hot Flashes

Patient Expert

It's amazing what the latest technology is enabling researchers to do. Take hot flashes, for instance. Researchers are now able to see the brain's activity as women undergo hot flashes.

The study out of Wayne State University used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look deep inside the brain. This imaging process uses powerful magnets and radio waves that create snapshots of the brain as it functions, allowing for researchers to analyze by measuring and mapping brain activity.

According to the University of California, San Diego's Center for Functional MRI, the activity of neurons constantly changes based on what an individual is doing. For instance, simple tasks such as picking up a cup of coffee lights up specific areas of the brain while complex activities, such as understanding language in a conversation, will use other parts of the brain. The brain also lights up in different patterns when you do activities that involve vision, hearing, touch, language and memory. Furthermore, your brain is highly active even while you're resting quietly; this is the time when patterns of activity are believed to reveal particular networks of the brain's areas that often work together.

In this particular study, 20 health women between the ages of 47 and 58 who had gone through menopause were selected. They typically experienced six or more hot flashes daily. Researchers asked the women to remain in the function MRI for approximately two hours and they were placed between two body-sized heating pads. To determine that a participant had had a hot flash, researchers collected levels of skin conductance, which is an electrical way of measuring a person's sweat.

Thanks to the functional MRI, the researchers learned that brain activity in the brainstem started before the onset of hot flashes. This area is located at the base of the brain and lies between the spinal cord and the deep structures of the brain's hemispheres. This part of the brain controls vital body functions, such as swallowing, breathing, blood pressure, cardiac function and - most important, in the case of hot flashes - body temperature.

The second part of the brain that kicks in after the hot flash is completed is the part of the cerebral cortex that is known as the insula. This brain structure involves two insula -- one on each side of the brain -- that are part of multiple circuits. According to a 2007 story in the New York Times, this part of the brain - which often has been neglected by researchers - is the wellspring of social emotions and moral intuition. This part of the brain also reads the state of the body, such as hunger and craving. This part of the brain is critical to the integration of the mind and the body. Furthermore, the insula receives data from receptors in the skin as well as the internal organs that are designed to detect heat, cold, pain, thirst, etc.

The hope is that these findings will allow researchers to develop new treatments for hot flashes. While this study didn't take on the subject, I can't help but wonder if these findings are a good reason to embrace or deepen a meditation practice. That's because meditation may increase the amount of gyrification or folding of the cortex, which helps the brain process information faster. Furthermore researchers have found a direct correlation between the amount of these folds and the number of meditation years. Additionally, there was a positive correlation between how long people have meditated and the amount of gyrification of the insula. Researchers hypothesize that these folds help us adapt to environmental changes. Furthermore, long-term meditation has been found to be associated with increased density in the brain stem.

If you're interested in learning about meditation, Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra have started a month-long online course on meditation. It will help you learn to relax, say "om" and possibly work your brain in a way that will help get your hot flashes under control.

Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

Blakeslee, S. (2007). A small part of the brain, and its profound effects. New York Times. (nd). Brainstem.

Diwadkar, V. A., et al. (2013). Temporal sequencing of brain activations during naturally occurring thermoregulatory events. Cerebral Cortex.

MedlinePlus. (2013). New clues about hot flashes and the brain.

ScienceDaily. (2012). Evidence builds that meditation strengthens the brain.

University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. (nd). What is fMRI?

Vestergaard-Poulsen, P., et al. (2009). Long-term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem. Neuroreport.