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Meditation Can Change Your Brain

Mindfulness and meditation are integral components of qigong.

While we do not have strong research isolating effects of meditation training within qigong practice, primary research in mindfulness and meditation training can generalize to qigong practice.

Recent research in this area is revealing how meditation can change our brains. Now, when we tell our students and clients that the mindful meditation component of qigong can improve learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self­ referential processing, and perspective taking, as well as slow brain atrophy associated with Alzheimer’s disease , we can add: And, these claims are supported by scientific evidence from major research centers including Harvard Medical School.

In 2011, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School reported the effects of an 8­ week course of meditation for college students.[1] Mindfulness ­Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well­ being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Anatomical magnetic resonance (MR) images from 16 healthy, meditation ­naïve participants were obtained before and after they underwent the 8­ week program.

Changes in gray matter concentration were investigated using voxel ­based morphometry, and compared with a waiting list control group of 17 individuals. Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo­parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared with the controls.

The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self­referential processing, and perspective taking .Canadian researchers reported evidence of observed changes in brain morphology in experienced meditators. [2]

Researchers reviewed 123 brain morphology differences from 21 neuroimaging studies examining ∼300 meditation practitioners. Anatomical likelihood estimation (ALE) meta­analysis found eight brain regions consistently altered in meditators, including areas key to meta­awareness (frontopolar cortex/BA 10), exteroceptive and interoceptive body awareness (sensory cortices and insula), memory consolidation and reconsolidation (hippocampus), self and emotion regulation (anterior and mid cingulate; orbitofrontal cortex), and intra­ and interhemispheric communication (superior longitudinal fasciculus; corpus callosum).

Finally, researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School studied the effects of Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on 14 adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer's Disease (AD). [4] Researchers found that mindfulness training increased functional connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and bilateral medial prefrontal cortex and left hippocampus compared to controls. In addition, MBSR participants had trends of less bilateral hippocampal volume atrophy than control participants.

These preliminary results indicate that in adults with MCI, MBSR may have a positive impact on the regions of the brain most related to MCI and AD.

1. Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Jan 30;191(1):36­43. doi: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006. Epub 2010 Nov 10. PubMed PMID: 21071182; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3004979.

2. Fox KC, Nijeboer S, Dixon ML, Floman JL, Ellamil M, Rumak SP, Sedlmeier P, Christoff K. Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta­analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners.  Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2014 Jun;43:48­73. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.03.016. Epub 2014 Apr 3.

3. Wells RE, Yeh GY, Kerr CE, Wolkin J, Davis RB, Tan Y, Spaeth R, Wall RB, Walsh J, Kaptchuk TJ, Press D, Phillips RS, Kong J. Meditation's impact on default mode network and hippocampus in mild cognitive impairment: a pilot study.  Neurosci Lett. 2013 Nov 27;556:15­9. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2013.10.001. Epub 2013 Oct 10. PubMed PMID: 24120430; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4022038.