The study found that as long-term meditators grew older, they had less gray-matter atrophy in the brain compared with nonmeditators (Frontiers in Psychology 2015; doi: 103389/fpsyg.2014.01551).
"While much research has focused on identifying factors that increase the risk of mental illness and neurodegenerative decline, relatively less attention has turned to approaches aimed at enhancing cerebral health," said lead study author Eileen Luders, PhD, assistant professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a UCLA news release.
UCLA researchers chose to examine the association between aging and the brain’s gray matter—the part of the brain’s tissue that contains neurons—after prior research had shown that meditation could increase white matter in the brain. Gray matter is part of the central nervous system and is involved in muscle control, sensory perception, memory, emotions, speech, decision making and self-control.
Investigators analyzed data from 100 subjects aged 24–77 to observe age-related declines in gray matter overall (global) and in specific brain regions related to meditation practice (local). Participants included 50 experienced meditators and 50 people of equivalent ages without meditation exposure.
All subjects received MRI brain scans by the same scanner, using the same protocol. Data analysis revealed correlations between aging and both global and local gray matter, showing volume shrinkages for meditators and nonmeditators alike.
Meditators, however, showed significantly less reduction in both global and local gray matter. "We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating," said Florian Kurth, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center, in a UCLA news release. "Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain."
Study authors noted that because of lifestyle factors, personality traits and genetic brain differences between those who choose to meditate and those who do not, a direct causal link between meditation and preservation of the brain’s gray matter could not be determined. "Still, our results are promising," said Luders. "Hopefully they will stimulate other studies exploring the potential of meditation to better preserve our aging brains and minds."