Literally changing the brain’s physical structure
Just like pushups are ubiquitous from gyms everywhere to P.E. to prisons, meditation is slowly becoming more mainstream. Goldie Hawn even founded a group to put meditation education in schools, called MindUp, and elementary students are reportedly loving it. New research reveals that meditators’ brains are not only filled with more gray matter, but they atrophy much slower. Imagine the possibliities if you had started meditating as a kid!
Two years ago, researchers found that specific regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger and had more gray matter than the brains of individuals in a control group. Now, a follow-up study in the online edition of the journal NeuroImages uggests that people who meditate also have stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy.
Eileen Luders, a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, and colleagues used a type of brain imaging known as diffusion tensor imaging, or DTI, a relatively new imaging mode that provides insights into the structural connectivity of the brain.
“Our results suggest that long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain,” Luders said. “We also found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue is considerably reduced in active meditation practitioners.”
The study consisted of 27 active meditation practitioners (average age 52) and 27 control subjects, who were matched by age and sex. The number of years of meditation practice ranged from 5 to 46; self-reported meditation styles included Shamatha, Vipassana and Zazen, styles that were practiced by about 55 percent of the meditators.
“It is possible that actively meditating, especially over a long period of time, can induce changes on a micro-anatomical level,” says Luders, who meditates. “Meditation, however, might not only cause changes in brain anatomy by inducing growth but also by preventing reduction,” Luders said. “That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy, perhaps by positively affecting the immune system.“
Nature vs. Nurture
While it is tempting to assume that the differences between the two groups constitute actual meditation-induced effects, there is still the unanswered question of nature versus nurture.
“It’s possible that meditators might have brains that are fundamentally different to begin with,” Luders says. “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.”
Still, “Meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain at large.”