Meditation associated with structural
changes in brain
MRI images show thickening of attention-related
areas, potential reduction of aging effects
BOSTON - November 11, 2005 - The regular practice of meditation
appears to produce structural changes in areas of the brain associated
with attention and sensory processing. An imaging study led by Massachusetts
General Hospital (MGH) researchers showed that particular areas
of the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain, were thicker
in participants who were experienced practitioners of a type of
meditation commonly practiced in the U.S. and other Western countries.
The article appears in the Nov. 15 issue of NeuroReport,
and the research also is being presented Nov. 14 at the Society
for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, DC.
"Our results suggest that meditation can produce experience-based
structural alterations in the brain," says Sara Lazar, PhD,
of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, the study's
lead author. "We also found evidence that meditation may slow
down the aging-related atrophy of certain areas of the brain."
Studies have shown that meditation can produce alterations in brain
activity, and meditation practitioners have described changes in
mental function that last long after actual meditation ceases, implying
long-term effects. However, those studies usually examined Buddhist
monks who practiced meditation as a central focus of their lives.
To investigate whether meditation as typically practiced in the
U.S. could change the brain's structure, the current study enrolled
20 practitioners of Buddhist Insight meditation - which focuses
on "mindfulness," a specific, nonjudgmental awareness
of sensations, feelings and state of mind. They averaged nine years
of meditation experience and practiced about six hours per week.
For comparison, 15 people with no experience of meditation or yoga
were enrolled as controls.
Using standard MRI to produce detailed images of the structure of
participants' brains, the researchers found that regions involved
in the mental activities that characterize Insight meditation were
thicker in the meditators than in the controls, the first evidence
that alterations in brain structure may be associated with meditation.
They also found that, in an area associated with the integration
of emotional and cognitive processes, differences in cortical thickness
were more pronounced in older participants, suggesting that meditation
could reduce the thinning of the cortex that typically occurs with
"The area where we see these differences is involved in both
the modulation of functions like heart rate and breathing and also
the integration of emotion with thought and reward-based decision
making - a central switchboard of the brain," says Lazar. An
instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, she also stresses
that the results of such a small study need to be validated by larger,
The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of
Health, the MIND Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. Co-authors are Rachel Wasserman, Doug Greve, PhD, Michael
Treadway, Brian Quinn, Scott Rauch, MD, and Bruce Fischl, PhD, of
the MGH; Catherine Kerr, PhD, Harvard Medical School; Jeremy Gray,
PhD, Yale University; Metta McGarvey, Harvard Graduate School of
Education; Jeffery Dusek, PhD, and Herbert Benson, MD, Beth Israel
Deaconess Medical Center and Mind/Body Medical Institute; and Christopher
Moore, PhD, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and McGovern Institute
for Brain Research.
Massachusetts General Hospital, established in 1811, is the original
and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The MGH
conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the United
States, with an annual research budget of nearly $500 million and
major research centers in AIDS, cardiovascular research, cancer,
cutaneous biology, medical imaging, neurodegenerative disorders,
transplantation biology and photomedicine. In 1994, MGH and Brigham
and Women's Hospital joined to form Partners HealthCare System,
an integrated health care delivery system comprising the two academic
medical centers, specialty and community hospitals, a network of
physician groups, and nonacute and home health services.
Media Contact: Sue
McGreevey, MGH Public Affairs
Physician Referral Service: 1-800-388-4644
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