April 9, 2012

Meditation: Strength Training for the Brain

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Joseph V. Madia, MD By:

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Meditation may improve brain functioning

For those not familiar with the practice, meditation might easily be written off as something a little too “out there.” But data shows that the use of meditation is growing among Americans. According to a 2007 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, 9.4% of the 23,393 sample group polled reported using meditation in the previous year, up from 7.6% of those polled in 2002. Now new research from UCLA showing how meditation may strengthen the brain might just push a few more to try it.

Meditation and Gyrification

In a study led by Eileen Luders, Ph.D., from the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, brain scans of 50 meditators were compared to scans of 50 control subjects (matched for sex and age). The results showed a significant increase in the pattern and degree of cortical folding in the brains of meditators.

This folding, called gyrification, was more pronounced across several regions of the meditators cerebral cortices, including the left precentral gyrus, right fusiform gyrus, right cuneus and the left and right anterior dorsal insula.

Gyrification is important because these changes in the surface of the brain might be connected to a quicker processing of information. The cerebral cortex supports awareness, memory, and consciousness. The theory is that the more gyrification that occurs in this region, the more heightened these functions become.

Not only was the cortical folding more pronounced across the meditators as a group, Luders and her team found a strong positive correlation between gyrification and the number of years a subject had been practicing meditation. The years of practice ranged from 4 to 46 and gyrifcation seemed to increase as the number of years practicing rose. These changes could once again be seen across various regions of the cerebral cortex, most markedly in the insular region.

According to Luders, "The insula has been suggested to function as a hub for autonomic, affective and cognitive integration. Meditators are known to be masters in introspection and awareness as well as emotional control and self-regulation, so the findings make sense that the longer someone has meditated, the higher the degree of folding in the insula."

The Practice Explained

Cortical folding aside, the practice of meditation is actually quite a simple one. Though the ancient technique has developed many subsets and methods over the years, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) reports that most types of meditation have four major common factors.

The first common factor is a quiet location where the practitioner can feel at ease and free from distractions. Next, a certain comfortable posture is assumed, which could range from lying down to walking calmly. A focus of attention is also an integral feature of all types of meditation. Some meditators might focus on their breathing, a mantra or set of words, or an object. And lastly, an open attitude is assumed, in which the practitioner allows wandering thoughts to be noticed and observed gently before refocusing attention.

According to NCCAM, the effectiveness of meditation may be due to a connection with the nervous system and its regulation of various organs and muscles. It is thought that meditation slows down activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which when activated, readies the body for action and stimulates the “flight-or-fight” response. The flight-or-fight response is connected to higher heart and breathing rates and to the slowing of digestion, among other factors. Conversely, meditation might increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart and breathing rates, increases blood flow and aids digestion.

Some speculate that perhaps on a more simple level, training the mind to improve attention can reap many benefits in daily life, including increasing effectiveness in everyday tasks and bettering mood regulation. Both the biological nervous system response and attention improvement theories are common explanations for the positive results that devoted meditation practitioners swear by.

“Om” On

Although the research is still ongoing to confirm the physical results of meditation, NCCAM reports that many people now use meditation for various aspects of general well-being, including increasing relaxation and recovering from illnesses. Specific ailments that are motivators to meditate range from anxiety, depression, physical pain, stress, insomnia and coping (both physically and emotionally) with a chronic illness.

Though studies into the benefits of meditation and its effect on the body and brain still have more to learn, the practice is becoming a more widely recognized option. One simple reason is the practice’s accessibility. To give it a try, all you need is your mind and a few minutes in a quiet space. The NCCAM does however, take care to advise against simply picking up meditation and dropping conventional treatments currently being used.

Even if you can’t feel any gyrification happening in your cerebral cortex, if the UCLA study proves true, a meditation practice might strengthen the organ over time. And at the very least, it can allow you to grab a few minutes of peace and calm.

Conditions: 
Mental Health

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Reviewed by: 
Joseph V. Madia, MD
Review Date: 
April 4, 2012

Last Updated:
October 28, 2012