TWO YEARS AGO, researchers at UCLA 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. This suggested that meditation may indeed be good for all of us since, alas, our brains shrink naturally with age.
Now, a follow-up study, published online in the journal NeuroImage, suggests that people who meditate also have stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy. And significantly, these effects are evident throughout the entire brain, not just in specific areas. Eileen Lueders, Ph.D., a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, and colleagues used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to look 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.
“Our results suggest that long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain,” Dr. Lueders says. “We also found that the normal age-related decline of whitematter tissue is considerably reduced in active meditation practitioners. It is possible that actively meditating, especially over a long period of time, can induce changes on a micro-anatomical level.”
Meditation, however, might not only cause changes in brain anatomy by inducing growth, but also by preventing reduction, Dr. Lueders said. “That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy, perhaps by positively affecting the immune system,” she says.
There is a “but.” While it is tempting to assume that the differences between the meditators and nonmediators 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,” Dr. Lueders says.
Still, meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain at large, she says.