Jonathan Foust

August 26, 2008

This is Jonnie’s Brain

Filed under: Dharma, Meditation — jonathanfoust @ 3:18 pm

That’s a snapshot of my brain.  Really.

 

Last summer I took part in a study sponsored by Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and Harvard University.

I’ll go into more details in terms of what it was like to do the cognitive tests as well as the MRI, but here’s an overview, if you feel drawn to the details.

In a nutshell, if you look REALLY REALLY closely at my brain above, you might notice my cortical thickness is like, thick.

 

Unless I was the dude who dragged the averages down.

 

Meditation experience is associated with thickening of brain structures


In recent years, numerous stories in the popular press have reported differences in brain function between Buddhist monks and the general population. While this research has been very important and interesting, it has failed to address questions surrounding the effects of meditation as it is commonly practiced in the United States. Unlike Tibetan Buddhist monks, who have devoted their lives to the practice of meditation, practitioners in the U.S. usually meditate just 30-40 minutes per day and incorporate their practice into a daily routine involving career, family, friends and other outside interests. The present study has focused on the long-term impact of this “Western-style” meditation and how it might be associated with neuroplastic changes – adaptations in physical and cellular structure – in the brain. While previous research with monks has demonstrated that long-term meditation may lead to altered brain wave patterns, we hypothesized that long-term meditation practice might also result in changes in the brain’s physical structure, possibly reflecting increased use of specific brain regions.  

To test this hypothesis, we used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess thickness of the cortex – the outer area of the brain – in twenty individuals with extensive Western-style meditation experience. These study participants were all students of Buddhist “Insight” meditation, which focuses on the cultivation of a trait called mindfulness, a specific, non-judgmental awareness of present-moment sensory stimuli. All the participants were Caucasian and were American or European-born. Two of the meditators were full-time meditation teachers, three were part-time teachers of either yoga or meditation, and the rest were typical professionals with varied careers such as law, healthcare, and journalism. On average, these participants had 9 years of meditation experience and practiced 6 hours per week. The fifteen control subjects had no meditation or yoga experience. The meditation and control subjects were matched for gender, age, race and years of education. All subjects laid quietly in the scanner while detailed images were taken of the structure of their brains. Unlike functional MRI, these images do not measure brain function

As predicted, brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing were thicker in meditators than in the controls. These findings provide the first evidence that alterations in brain structure are associated with meditation practice. The second main finding was that, in one of the regions, the differences in cortical thickness were most pronounced in older subjects, suggesting that regular practice of meditation might reduce normal age-related cortical thinning. This region is an area of the cortex thought to be involved in integrating emotional and cognitive processes. Although numerous studies examining cortical thickness have pointed to aging and pathology as sources of cortical thinning , there has been limited work indicating mechanisms promoting cortical thickening. Our findings are consistent with four other reports which demonstrated that practices such as playing a musical instrument or learning to juggle are also associated with increases in cortical volume. Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being.

Our results are preliminary and need to be interpreted with great caution. This study enrolled a small number of participants whose brains were imaged only once. It is possible that people who naturally have a thicker cortex in areas associated with awareness and sensory processing are more likely to practice meditation. Further research needs to be done using a larger number of participants, testing each individual multiple times, or examining their brains prior to starting meditation practice. Nevertheless, our initial results are very encouraging. Lending particular support to our hypothesis is the fact that the pattern of cortical thickening corresponds well to the specific activities that practitioners of Insight meditation repeatedly engage in over time: paying attention to breathing sensation and sensory stimuli. Additionally, the observed increases in cortical thickness were proportional to the amount of time the participant has spent meditating over their lifetime. While additional research needs to be done, our results do suggest that the observed differences are acquired through extensive practice of meditation and are not simply due to incidental between-group differences.

Although our study relied exclusively on subjects that had practiced Insight meditation, we believe that other forms of yoga and meditation would have a similar impact on cortical structure and plasticity.  It will be left to future research to clarify the specific pattern of thickening associated with various different meditation techniques. In summary, the current study suggests that the changes in brain structure and function resulting from long-term meditation are not limited to monks but may be extended to Western-style practitioners as well. 

 

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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