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Meditation might keep brains young, healthy and connected

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Meditation and the brain

Meditation might do for the brain what push-ups do for the body, suggests new research. Findings from brain imaging studies show meditation might keep the brain young, guarding from atrophy and other changes associated with aging.

In their studies, which used brain imaging known as diffusion tensor imaging, or DTI, UCLA researchers found meditators have less decline of white matter in the brain that is normally associated with aging, compared to those who don’t meditate.They also noted neuronal connections were more robust throughout the brain, rather than confined to one area.

Eileen Luders, a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of NeuroImaging said: "Our results suggest that long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain. We also found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue is considerably reduced in active meditation practitioners."

For the study, the researchers imaged age and gender matched meditators with control subjects. Included were 27 active meditators and 27 participants who did not meditate. Average age was 52, consisting of 11 men and 16 women in each group.

Connection from spinal cord to cerebral cortex more pronounced among long-term meditators

Compared to non-meditators, the researchers noted a strong structural connection from the spinal cord to the cerebral cortex among those who practice meditation regularly that was most pronounced.

The cerebral cortex is the area of the brain responsible for memory and attention as well as perceptual awareness, language, consciousness and thought.

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Luders, who also practices meditation says, "It is possible that actively meditating, especially over a long period of time, can induce changes on a micro-anatomical level”, in turn leading to the visible, or macroscopic changes seen in the study.

The study follows previous findings that gray matter is more prominent in individuals who meditate. The new study shows meditation may have a widespread effect on the brain that keeps connective fibers robust.

Luders explains meditation might cause brain structures to grow, or perhaps just prevent the brain from deteriorating with aging. "That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy, perhaps by positively affecting the immune system."

Rather than interpreting the study incorrectly, Luders also notes the findings may not be due to meditation. It may be the brains of meditators are different to begin with, drawing them to the practice in the first place.

The authors write, "While cross-sectional studies represent a good starting point for elucidating possible links between meditation and white matter fiber characteristics, longitudinal studies will be necessary to determine the relative contribution of nature and nurture to enhanced structural connectivity in long-term meditators."

Regardless, she says practicing meditation is a powerful tool that has the “potential to change the physical structure of the brain at large.” If the finding is supported in future research, meditation could provide a way to help individuals with demyelinating brain disorders and atrophy.

The finding in the new study showed meditators have younger, healthier brains and robust connectivity between neurons, compared to non-meditators. Whether the effect is from meditation, or naturally occurs in those drawn to the practice, requires more study.

"Enhanced brain connectivity in long-term meditation practitioners"
Eileen Luders, Kristi Clarka, Katherine L. Narra and Arthur W. Toga

Updated November 25, 2014