Meditation is associated with changes in the physical structure of the brain

In this post, I mentioned some interesting studies where neuroscientists put Buddhist monks into brain scanners, trying to find out what effect meditation has on the brain. They found some interesting results in terms of brain activity. If you throw neuroplasticity into the mix too, you’d expect some structural differences too. A study led by Sara Lazar looked into just that.

I’ve mentioned my thoughts on neuroscience and positive psychology previously. My key point is that, since neuroplasticity is a given these days, it’s not all that impressive to demonstrate changes in the brain as a result of consistent practice of a given activity. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important study to do. The key questions are: what changes, how much, and does this fit in with other results and theory?

Twenty experienced meditators (had been one at least one retreat, practice 4 hours a week on average), were compared to a matched control group (by age, sex, race, and years of education). So note here that we don’t have random assignment, but we’ve got the next best thing if we want to study experienced meditators right now.

What happened?

Cortical thickness was compared between the two groups. Over the whole brain, there was no difference, meaning the changes were limited to a specific area. The areas were related to somatosensory, auditory, and interoceptive processing. If you want the specific brain regions, here they are:

  • A region of the right anterior insula
  • The right middle and superior frontal sulci (Brodmann areas 9 and 10, roughly)
  • The left superior temporal gyrus (auditory cortex)
  • A small region in the central sulcus

Also, normal age-related decreases in Brodmann areas 9/10 were seen in the control group but not the meditation group. In other words, meditation potentially helps prevent age-related deterioration in the brain!

Of course, this is a correlation study, and when two things are measured at the same time, it’s impossible to say what is the cause and what is the effect. Maybe people with enhanced cortical thickness tend to be drawn to meditation, rather than the other way around? It’s certainly possible, but as the authors note, if that were true you might expect greater cortical thickness overall, which wasn’t found here.

Meditation gives a double-whammy when it comes to making structural changes in the brain. Firstly, there is the control of attention during a consistent practice schedule. Secondly, the relaxed state of the body appears to facilitate cortical plasticity, at least in the auditory areas according to one study. This is comparable to the idea that sleep aids learning, study breaks aid recall, and so on.

That the structural changes were consistent with the brain areas associated with the techniques being practised, and that these changes may stave off age-related cortical decline, is encouraging. Presumably, different types of mental exercise would have effects on the brain areas related to them, and you could devise a routine aimed at the faculties you expect you’ll most need in your old age.

Ref:

Lazar SW, Kerr C, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve D, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, Fischl B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport, 2005; 16: 1893-1897.

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