Does meditation strengthen brain tissue?

Meditation may be just the thing to keep the brain going strong as we age.

A new study out of the University of California, Los Angeles, a follow-up to an earlier study, found that the brains of people who meditate have regions that are larger than those who do not mediate and demonstrate less age-related atrophy.

“Our results suggest that long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain,” said Eileen Luders, visiting assistant professor at the U.C.L.A. Laboratory of Neuro Imaging and lead author of the study.

“We also found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue is considerably reduced in active meditation practitioners.”

Luders and her team used a new type of brain imaging system called diffusion tensor imaging. It allows scientists to see structural connectivity of regions in the brain.

Using the imaging technology on 27 active mediators and 27 control subjects, they found that the differences of brain connectivity was not confined to a single region of the brain, but included the frontal and temporal lobes, as well as the limbic structures and the brain stem.

“It is possible that actively meditating, especially over a long period of time, can induce changes on a micro-anatomical level,” said Luders, who is also a meditator.

The areas that demonstrated the most structural connectivity included the corticospinal tract, where the axons travel between the cerebral cortex and the spinal cord and helps govern the body’s movements.

Luders cautions that while it is tempting to draw connections between meditation and brain health, other factors should be considered as well.

“It’s possible that meditators might have brains that are fundamentally different to begin with,” Luders said.

“For example, a particular brain anatomy may have drawn an individual to meditation or helped maintain an ongoing practice — meaning that the enhanced fiber connectivity in meditators constitutes a predisposition towards meditation, rather than being the consequence of the practice.”

Luders does maintain, however, that meditation does have its benefits.

“Meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain at large. Collecting evidence that active, frequent and regular meditation practices cause alterations of white-matter fiber tracts that are profound and sustainable may become relevant for patient populations suffering from axonal demyelination and white-matter atrophy,” she says.
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