Meditation Can Change Your Brain
for Better and Longer…
Compiled by Kevin W Chen, Ph.D.
There has been an old saying, when Buddha was asked, “What have you gained from long meditation?” Buddha replied, “Nothing!” “However, let me tell you what I lost: Anger, anxiety, depression, insecurity, fear of old age and death.” That is a very wise answer, good enough for motivating all of us to start meditation. However, recent scientific studies of changes in brain images and brain chemicals during or after meditation found that, Meditation can not only quiet your mind and lose all negativity, but also bring significant changes to your brain for better and longer life. I am preparing for such a study, so I decided to share what I found out in recent scientific literature.
1. Meditation Could Slow Down the Brain’s Aging Process
A new study published in January 2015 Frontiers in Psychology from the UCLA Brain Mapping Center reported that, meditation may protect the brain from aging, or slow down the aging process. The study used fMRI technology to scan participants’ brain, and compared 50 long-term meditators (average years of meditation 20 years) with 50 match non-meditators. While both groups showed a decline in gray matter with older age, the longtime meditators experienced significantly smaller reductions in gray matter volume than those who did not meditate, suggesting the gray matter in the long-term meditators was better preserved.
While overall life expectancy has been increasing, the human brain still begins deteriorating after age 20, and continues degrading further with age. Thus, techniques that diminish the negative impact of aging on the brain are desirable. Meditation, in addition to boosting emotional and physical well-being at any time in life, may be an effective way to prevent neuro-degenerative diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as help stave off some of the normal cognitive decline that comes with aging. The strategy is free, and it comes with no side effects. This new study builds on 2011 research from the same team, which showed that people who meditate exhibit less age-related atrophy in the brain’s white matter, material that makes up nearly half of the brain and is composed of nerve fibers that the brain uses to communicate. Earlier, the same lab also reported that long-term meditation is associated with larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter (Luders et al. 2009, 2012).
Another study using similar MRI technology from the experienced neuroscientists at Harvard University revealed that meditation literally rebuilds the brain’s gray matter in 8 Weeks. The research team’s MRI scans documented for the very first time in medical history how meditation produced massive changes inside the brain’s gray matter. “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says study senior author Sara Lazar, who has direct many studies in this area, “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3927233/
2. Meditation May Rewire Our Brain
In her enlightening book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Sharon Begley explains that the paradigm in the scientific community for centuries is that the brain is essentially fixed, hardwired, unchangeable. This view was summed up by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a Spanish neuroanatomist, when he said, “In the adult centers the nerve paths are something fixed, ended and immutable.” In other words, “the circuits of the living brain are unchanging, its structures and organizations almost as static and stationary as a deathly white cadaver floating in a vat of formaldehyde,” as Begley summarized.
However, study after study is changing this view to fit the facts. As Begley reports, it’s not just that thinking positive thoughts helps us to feel better and have a better attitude. Positive, productive thinking can actually change the biological structure of our brains. Amazing! Begley continues: Brain changes can be generated by pure mental activity … Something as seemingly insubstantial as thought has the ability to act back on the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can lead to recovery from mental illness and perhaps to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion.
UCLA neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz experimented with mindfulness meditation on his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) patients. He hypothesized that mindfulness could make them aware that their obsessions were caused by malfunctions in their brain, not true signals of distress. Schwartz trained his patients to recognize obsessive thoughts, and then think, “My brain is generating another obsessive thought. Don’t I know it is not real but just some garbage thrown up by a faulty circuit?” The vast majority of his patients began reporting positive results within just one week. The research team performed PET scans before and after ten weeks of mindfulness-based therapy. For most of them, the final PET scans showed physical changes in their brains. ” Therapy had altered the metabolism of the OCD circuit,” Schwartz reported. “This was the first study to show that cognitive-behavior therapy has the power to systematically change faulty brain chemistry in a well-identified brain circuit.” His ultimate conclusion was that “Mental action can alter the brain chemistry of an OCD patient. The mind can change the brain.”
Another recent study by Drs. Tang and Posner with diffusion tensor imaging technology, reported that meditation training can induce changes both in specific brain networks and in brain state. In both cases the efficiency of white matter as measured by diffusion tensor imaging is increased, often after only a few hours of meditation training. This dynamic pattern of white matter change involving the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain network related to self-regulation, could provide a means for intervention to improve or prevent mental disorders. They hypothesized that frontal theta induced by meditation produces a molecular cascade that increases myelin and improves connectivity.
An earlier study by Dr. Tang’s group has reported that short-term meditation training could produce significant change in brain’s attention networks that are related to alertness and conflict resolution (Tang et al. 2007).
Another group in UCLA (Kilpatrick et al. 2011) reported the impact of mindfulness meditation on intrinsic brain connectivity. They applied fcMRI technology to determine if mindfulness meditation is effective in altering intrinsic connectivity networks after 8 weeks of training. Significant meditation-related differences in functional connectivity were found mainly in auditory/salience and medial visual networks. Compared to control group, meditation subjects showed (1) increased functional connectivity within auditory and visual networks, (2) increased functional connectivity between auditory cortex and areas associated with attentional and self-referential processes, (3) greater anticorrelation between auditory and visual cortex, and (4) greater anticorrelation between visual cortex and areas associated with attentional and self-referential processes. These findings suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training alters intrinsic functional connectivity in ways that may reflect a more consistent attentional focus, enhanced sensory processing, and reflective awareness of sensory experience.
- Meditation May Lead to Structure Changes in Key Areas of Brain
The same group of neuroscientists from Harvard University interested in mindfulness meditation has reported that brain structures change after only eight weeks of meditation practice. The neuroscientists enrolled 16 people in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course. Everyone received audio recordings containing 45-minute guided mindfulness exercises, plus some mindfulness homework. On average, the meditation group spent an average of 27 minutes a day practicing some form of mindfulness. MRI scans of everyone’s brains were taken before and after they completed the meditation training (a control group didn’t do any meditation but also had their brains scanned). After completing the mindfulness course, the MRI scans showed that mindfulness groups increased gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum. Brain regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, sense of self, and perspective taking!
Another group of neuroscientists from Seoul National University in Korea also applied MRI technology to examine the brain structure differences between a well-matched sample of long-term meditators and non-meditation controls. With whole-brain cortical thickness analysis based on MRI imaging, and diffusion tensor imaging to quantify white matter integrity in the brains, compared with 46 matched non-meditation volunteers, they found that the 46 long-term meditators showed significantly greater cortical thickness in the anterior regions of the brain, located in frontal and temporal areas, including the medial prefrontal cortex, superior frontal cortex, temporal pole and the middle and interior temporal cortices. Significantly thinner cortical thickness was found in the posterior regions of the brain, located in the parietal and occipital areas, including the postcentral cortex, inferior parietal cortex, middle occipital cortex and posterior cingulate cortex. Moreover, in the region adjacent to the medial prefrontal cortex, both higher fractional anisotropy values and greater cortical thickness were observed. These findings confirm that long-term meditators have structural differences in both gray and white matter. (Kang et al. 2013). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3541490/
A similar study by that compared long-term meditators with matched control participants. The main findings were that meditators had larger gray matter volumes than non-meditators in brain areas that are associated with emotional regulation and response control (the right orbito-frontal cortex and the right hippocampus). (Luders et al. 2009)
Leung and her colleagues from University of Hong Kong also reported increased gray matter volume in the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyri among 10 long-term meditators, in comparison with novices (Leung et al. 2013).
Vestergaard-Poulsen and his colleague (2009) from Aarhus University of Denmark also reported that long-term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem. Using MRI imaging, they observed higher gray matter density in lower brain stem regions of experienced meditators compared with age-matched non-meditators. Their findings show that long-term meditators have structural differences in brainstem regions concerned with cardiorespiratory control. This could account for some of the cardiorespiratory parasympathetic effects and traits, as well as the cognitive, emotional, and immunoreactive impact reported in several studies of different meditation practices.
Pickut et al (2013) from University of Antiwerp (Belgium) reported that mindfulness meditation lead to structural brain changes on MRI among patients with Parkinson’s disease. In a controlled longitudinal trial they randomized 27 patients into either mindfulness intervention (n=14) or usual care (UC) control (n=13). MRI data sets of the brain were obtained at baseline and after eight weeks follow-up. Increased gray matter density (GMD) was found in the mindfulness group compared to the UC in the region of interest (ROI) analysis in the right amygdala, and bilaterally in the hippocampus. Whole brain analysis showed increased GMD in the left and right caudate nucleus, the left occipital lobe at the lingual gyrus and cuneus, the left thalamus, and bilaterally in the temporo-parietal junction. These areas have also been implicated in the functional networks mediating the benefits of meditation.
After reviewing all these scientific evidences, I now believe that meditation is not just quiet the mind and stimulate relaxation response, but also generate significant changes in the brain, and produce prolonged effects on our brain and physical health.
Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Jan 30;191(1):36-43.
Kang DH, Jo HJ, Jung WH, et al. The effect of meditation on brain structure: cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2013 Jan;8(1):27-33.
Kilpatrick LA, Suyenobu BY, Smith SR, et al. Impact of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training on intrinsic brain connectivity. Neuroimage. 2011 May 1;56(1):290-8.
Leung MK, Chan CC, Yin J, Lee CF, So KF, Lee TM. Increased gray matter volume in the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyri in loving-kindness meditators. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2013 Jan;8(1):34-9.
Luders E, Toga AW, Lepore N, & Gaser C. (2009). The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. Neuroimage, 45(3), 672-678.
Luders E, Phillips OR, Clark K, Kurth F, Toga AW, Narr KL. Bridging the hemispheres in meditation: thicker callosal regions and enhanced fractional anisotropy (FA) in long-term practitioners. Neuroimage. 2012 May 15;61(1):181-7.
Luders E, Cherbuin N, Kurth F, (2015). Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy. Frontiers in Psychology. Jan 21, 2015.
Pickut BA, Van Hecke W, Kerckhofs E, et al. Mindfulness based intervention in Parkinson’s disease leads to structural brain changes on MRI: a randomized controlled longitudinal trial. Clin Neurol Neurosurg. 2013 Dec;115(12):2419-25.
Singleton O, Hölzel BK, Vangel M, Brach N, Carmody J, Lazar SW. Change in Brainstem Gray Matter Concentration Following a Mindfulness-Based Intervention is Correlated with Improvement in Psychological Well-Being. Front Hum Neurosci. 2014 Feb 18;8:33.
Tang YY, Lu Q, Fan M, Yang Y, Posner MI. Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Jun 26;109(26):10570-4.
Tang YY, Ma Y, Wang J, Fan Y, Feng S, Lu Q, Yu Q, Sui D, Rothbart MK, Fan M, Posner MI. Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Oct 23;104(43):17152-6.
Vestergaard-Poulsen P, van Beek M, Skewes J, et al. Long-term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem. Neuroreport. 2009 Jan 28;20(2):170-4.
Kevin W Chen, Ph.D. – is an associate professor at the Center for Integrative Medicine and Department of Psychiatry, University ofMaryland School of Medicine (USA). Dr. Chen was educated in the universities of both China and the United States, and has years of experience and training in blending eastern and western perspectives, and in the practice of life-nurturing methods. As a long-time practitioner of Qigong Yang Sheng, he is one of the few scientists in the U.S. to have both hands-on knowledge of mind-body practice, and an active research career in mind-body medicine, which is funded through grants by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and various foundations. Dr. Chen devotes his career and life to the practice of Yang Sheng, and promotion of self-healing and mind-body-spirit integration through the non-profit organization, World Institute for Self Healing (WISH).
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