What we do on a daily basis can affect our brain health, thanks to neuroplasticity, the lifelong ability of the brain to change. In other words, new brain cells (neurons) and connections between neurons can grow, based on our experiences. Previous studies have shown that becoming expert at a specific activity (music, language, navigation, etc.) changes the brain areas involved in this activity. These areas are highly stimulated and usually get bigger as more neurons and connections are generated. Could practicing meditation change the brain too?
Meditation has been practiced for millennia. Originally, it was intended to develop spiritual understanding and awareness. Some studies have shown that meditation can reduce stress, promote relaxation, and bolster the immune system. Others suggest that meditation may boost cognitive abilities such as attention.
A 2009 study, conducted by Luders and colleagues at UCLA, scanned and compared the brains of 22 meditators and 22 non-meditators (controls) to examine the effect of meditation on brain structures. There were 9 men and 13 women in each group. Age ranged between 30 and 71 years (mean age: 53). Years of meditation practice ranged between 5 and 46 years (mean: 24.18 years) and included different styles of meditation.
Compared to non-meditators’ brains, meditators’ brains showed more gray matter (increased brain volume) in several regions (the orbito-frontal cortex, the thalamus, and the hippocampus on the right and inferior temporal cortex on the left). No regions were bigger in the controls’ brains than in the meditators’ brains.
The brain areas that were larger in the meditator’s brains are involved in functions that are highly stimulated during meditation. The orbito-frontal cortex (in the front part of the brain) deals with emotion regulation. The thalamus is involved in regulating the flow of sensory information. The hippocampus has several roles but is primarily involved in memory trace formation. Thus it is possible that a long practice of meditation did trigger these brain changes, thanks to neuroplasticity.
It is not know so far how many years of meditation are needed to trigger similar changes. It is also not know whether these structural changes are directly related to any behavioral changes.
Let’s note that the changes observed in the meditators’ brain were small. Also, this study does not provide any indication that meditation is the CAUSE of the changes. Although the 2 groups were carefully matched based on age, gender and education there may be factors other than meditation that caused the brain differences observed.
Luders, E., Toga, A. W., Lepore, N., & Gaser, C. (2009). The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. NeuroImage, 45, 672-678.