Meditation Increases Brain Volume

senior woman meditationMeditation is widely regarded as a successful way to promote calm, reduce stress and reflect on one’s life. In order to learn more about the effects meditation has on the brain, Sara Lazar, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, studied individuals that meditated on both a long-term and short-term basis.

Lazar first studied the brains of long-term meditators, or insight meditation practitioners, who meditated regularly over many years and compared them with the brains of a control group. Rather than utilizing mantra or chanting, insight meditation focuses on cultivating attention to internal experiences and mental capacity termed “mindfulness.” On average, the long-term meditators group practiced meditation 40 minutes a day for about a decade. Using magnetic resonance imaging, the research team saw that meditators had more gray matter in the insula and sensory regions as well as the auditory and sensory cortex compared to the control group. Their heightened senses were due to an increase in mindfulness during their practice – they paid more attention to their breathing, sounds around them and the experience of the present moment.

Long-term meditators also had more gray matter in the frontal cortex which is associated with working memory and executive decision making. The cortex often shrinks with age, making it more difficult to solve problems and remember things, but this study showed that the prefrontal cortex of 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as that of 25-year-olds.

Lazar and her team wanted to make sure that the long-term meditators didn’t have more gray matter before they started meditating. In a second study, they assessed a group of people that went through an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. Individuals attended a weekly class and were asked to meditate 40 minutes daily. However, the average meditation time was about 30 minutes a day.

Compared to the control group, this short-term meditation group had increases in brain volume in five different regions. Researchers also saw thickening in the following four regions: posterior cingulate (involved in mind wandering and self-relevance), left hippocampus (assists in learning, memory and emotional regulation), temporoparietal junction (involved in perspective-taking and empathy) and Pons (center for production of regulatory neurotransmitters). In the meditation group, the amygdala, which is associated with fear and stress, decreased in size and correlated with a reduction in stress levels.

This study suggests that meditation practice may promote neuroplasticity and slow the rate of neurodegeneration in certain areas of the brain. Currently, there is no proven amount of time required to see benefits from meditation, although aiming for 30 minutes a day is a good goal. Similar to exercise, meditation is not a cure-all and is best used alongside other healthy practices such as eating a balanced diet in order to see the most positive results.