Meditation can help preserve gray matter which processes information in the brain, scientists have found.
Researchers from University of California – Los Angeles looked specifically at the association between age and gray matter.
Their earlier work had suggested that people who meditate have less age-related atrophy in the brain’s white matter.
The new study compared 50 people who had mediated for years and 50 who didn’t. People in both groups showed a loss of gray matter as they aged.
But the researchers found among those who meditated, the volume of gray matter did not decline as much as it did among those who did not.
Dr Florian Kurth, a co-author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center, said the researchers were surprised by the magnitude of the difference.
“We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” he said.
“Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain,” Kurth added.
Each group in the study was made up of 28 men and 22 women ranging in age from 24 to 77. Those who meditated had been doing so for four to 46 years, with an average of 20 years.
The participants’ brains were scanned using high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging.
Although the researchers found a negative correlation between gray matter and age in both groups of people – suggesting a loss of brain tissue with increasing age – they also found that large parts of the gray matter in the brains of those who meditated seemed to be better preserved.
The researchers cautioned that they cannot draw a direct, causal connection between meditation and preserving gray matter in the brain. Too many other factors may come into play, including lifestyle choices, personality traits, and genetic brain differences.
“Still, our results are promising,” said Dr Eileen Luders, first author and assistant professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
“Hopefully they will stimulate other studies exploring the potential of meditation to better preserve our ageing brains and minds.
“Accumulating scientific evidence that meditation has brain-altering capabilities might ultimately allow for an effective translation from research to practice, not only in the framework of healthy ageing but also pathological ageing,” Luders said.
The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.