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Published on: November 23, 2015
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Meditation has been shown to provide numerous benefits for people of all ages. Among other things, it appears to help with a variety of physical and psychological conditions including stress, pain, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure and sleep problems.
Although there are many kinds of meditation, this article focuses primarily on one of the most common forms, mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness meditation trains your attention to focus on the present moment and not get carried away by thoughts of the past or worries about the future.
One of the best known and most studied form of mindfulness meditation is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. This eight-week intensive training has participants meet once each week to learn new techniques and encourages them to practice at home in between sessions.
How Meditation Changes Your Brain
Research has not yet identified the exact reason behind the numerous benefits of meditation, but it seems that physical changes in the brain are likely playing a role.
Multiple studies have found that meditation impacts grey matter in certain regions of the brain and may play a role in slowing down the age-induced thinning of the frontal cortex. For example, a study by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital used MRI scans to document changes in the brain’s grey matter in response to meditation. The results, published in January 2011 in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, showed that meditators had increased grey matter density in the hippocampus, an area of the brain known to be important for learning and memory.
Furthermore, decreased grey matter density was found in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.
A 2009 review of the neuroprotective effects of meditation, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, found that meditation may help to elevate levels of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein found in the brain that helps support survival of existing neurons and encourage growth of new neurons and synapses. It is known to be important for long-term memory.
Research reported in 2010 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found similar results. In this study, a simple meditation program practiced 12 minutes a day over 8 weeks by cognitively impaired participants, resulted in significant increases in cerebral blood flow in the frontal cortex, a part of the brain that aids in attention and executive function. (Executive function refers to the management of many cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, problem solving, planning and execution.)
Researchers at the University of California – Los Angeles suggest that one possible effect of repeatedly focusing one’s attention during meditation is increased brain connectivity. The results of their study, published in the May 2011 issue of Neuroimage, indicated that functional MRI scans of participants who had finished eight weeks of MBSR training showed stronger connections in several regions of their brain. This was especially true for the regions
associated with attention, as well as auditory and visual processing, when compared to control group participants who did not complete the training.
The Role of Stress
While research performed to date does not provide a definitive explanation of why meditation affects the brain in the above ways, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University suggest that mindfulness meditation may influence health through stress reduction. They explain, in the December 2014 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, that when someone experiences stress, activity in their prefrontal cortex (responsible for conscious thinking and planning) decreases, while activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex (regions associated with the body’s stress response) increase. It appears that mindfulness meditation reverses these patterns. When confronted with stress, prefrontal activity increases, helping to regulate and turn down the body’s stress response.
One possible explanation could be that by helping to reduce stress, meditation decreases the amount of cortisol secreted, a decrease that could have neuroprotective effects. Cortisol is a hormone known to wreak havoc in the body when released in high quantities and its release is a documented response to chronic stress.
Mindfulness Meditation for the Memory-Impaired
A limited amount of research has been performed that studies the impacts of mindfulness meditation on people experiencing cognitive decline. The studies that have been performed so far indicate that mindfulness training is beneficial for individuals with MCI or dementia, particularly those in the early stages, as well as their caregivers.
Below are highlights from some of those studies:
Giving Meditation a Try
With the potential for so many brain-boosting benefits, meditation is a great activity to integrate into your day, either as a preventative measure or to combat existing cognitive decline. It doesn’t have to take much time, but it’s best if you practice a little bit every day rather than for long periods only occasionally.
Meditation training is widely available through in-person classes or through recorded audio programs. You might want to try out a few different styles of meditation to help you discover the one that suits you best.
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