Gardening Modifies the Patterns of Brain Activation and Enhances the Mental Profile of Healthy Women
By Christine Johns Penman
Chair: Charles Guy
Major: Horticultural Sciences
Research in the field of people-plant interactions has long sought to demonstrate the therapeutic effects of interacting with plants that is often innately felt by a majority of the population. However, many studies have relied solely on self-report or observational data, and there has been very little research aimed at understanding the neurological bases that could explain the therapeutic benefits of interacting with plants. This study used functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining (fMRI) to assess changes in the patterns of brain activation resulting
from a group-based gardening intervention. The resulting data were used to explore linkages that may exist with the mental health therapeutic benefits associated with gardening. Five
self-report psychometric assessments were used to quantify the mental and physical health-related therapeutic benefits accruing from a group-based gardening treatment intervention in a population of 12 healthy adult women. The treatment group received a six-week gardening program that involved working with plants and learning gardening skills, while the control group of 11 women received no intervention of any kind.
The two groups were evaluated at baseline and again following the completion of the gardening treatment using self-report questionnaires assessing general physical and mental health, perceived stress, depressive symptomatology, anxiety, and mood, and fMRI brain scans to evaluate brain activation patterns.
The results showed a significant improvement in the self-reported mental health status of the treatment group comparing pre- to post-intervention. Perceived stress, anxiety, total mood disturbance, and depressive symptomology were also significantly reduced in the treatment group. The control group demonstrated no changes in self-reported mental health.
Functional MRI results revealed unique patterns of activation between the control and treatment group at the post-intervention scan. The two groups did not exhibit any similar changes in brain activation from pre- to post-intervention. Unique areas of decreased activation in the treatment group included the inferior frontal gyrus and the medial frontal gyrus. These results suggest that a gardening experience is linked with positive self-reported improvements in mental health and with unique changes in the patterns of brain activation, including the inferior and medial frontal gyrus.