The red areas show brain regions affected by gray matter loss; the researchers found people who meditated had better preservation of gray matter.
Image credit: Dr. Eileen Luders
The research team, including Dr. Florian Kurth of the Brain Mapping Center at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), found meditation may be associated with better preservation of gray matter in the brain - the neuron-containing tissue responsible for processing information.
The investigators publish their findings in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Numerous studies have investigated the health benefits of meditation. In November last year, a study from Canadian researchers found meditation may have cellular benefits for breast cancer survivors, while an earlier study found it may be effective for reducing pain, anxiety and depression.
Past research has also associated meditation with improved cognitive functions, such as attention, memory and processing speed. In this latest study, Dr. Kurth and colleagues set out to see whether there is an association between meditation and brain tissue - specifically gray matter - that may help explain these previous findings.
The researchers recruited 100 subjects to the study aged 24-77. Of these, 50 had meditated for between 4 and 46 years and 50 had never engaged in the practice. Both groups were closely matched for age.
Using high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers scanned the brains of each participant.
Meditation group showed better preservation of gray matter in widespread brain regions
While the researchers identified reduced gray matter with increasing age - as they expected - they were surprised to find that individuals in the meditation group showed significantly lower gray matter loss in numerous brain regions, compared with those in the non-meditation group.
Dr. Kurth comments:
"We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating. Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain."
The team notes that this study did not account for other potential confounding factors, such as participants' lifestyle choices, personality and genetic brain differences, so they are unable to prove a causal association between meditation and reduced deterioration of gray matter.
However, first author Dr. Eileen Luders, of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, says the findings are "promising."
"Hopefully they will stimulate other studies exploring the potential of meditation to better preserve our aging brains and minds," she adds. "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 aging but also pathological aging."
In January 2014, a study published in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science suggested that our brains slow down as we age as a result of greater experience, not cognitive decline.