Meditation may change brain’s physical structure, strengthen connections

July 15, 2011

Meditation may have potential to change the brain’s physical structure, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have found.

People who meditate have stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy, according to the researchers. Stronger connections influence the ability to rapidly relay electrical signals in the brain. And significantly, these effects are evident throughout the entire brain, not just in specific areas.

The study consisted of 27 active meditation practitioners (average age 52) and 27 control subjects, who were matched by age and sex. The meditation and the control group each consisted of 11 men and 16 women. The number of years of meditation practice ranged from 5 to 46; self-reported meditation styles included Shamatha, Vipassana and Zazen, practiced by about 55 percent of the meditators, either exclusively or in combination with other styles.

Pronounced structural connectivity

The researchers used a type of brain imaging known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a relatively new imaging mode that provides insights into the structural connectivity of the brain. They found that the differences between meditators and controls are not confined to a particular core region of the brain but involve large-scale networks that include the frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital lobes and the anterior corpus callosum, as well as limbic structures and the brain stem.

They found pronounced structural connectivity in meditators throughout the entire brain’s pathways. The greatest differences between the two groups were seen within the corticospinal tract (a collection of axons that travel between the cerebral cortex of the brain and the spinal cord), the superior longitudinal fasciculus (long bi-directional bundles of neurons connecting the front and the back of the cerebrum), and the uncinate fasciculus (white matter that connects parts of the limbic system, such as┬áthe hippocampus and amygdala, with the frontal cortex).

“Meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain at large,” said Eileen Luders of UCLA. “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.”

Ref.: Arthur W. Toga, et al., Enhanced brain connectivity in long-term meditation practitioners, NeuroImage, 2011; [DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.05.075]