I prepared this summary of research on meditation and neuroplasticity for the Yoga Service Council. We're putting together research reviews and "best practices" recommendations across a wide range of topics to support individuals in the yoga and healthcare communities. We hope that these resources will help individuals apply for funding, bring yoga/meditation into a new clinical or educational setting, and develop evidence-based interventions.
The brain, once thought to be relatively fixed in structure and hard-wired in function, has been shown in the last decade to be remarkably responsive to experience. Mindfulness meditation and yoga appear to have positive neuroplastic effects, supporting both structure and function related to improved attention, memory, self-regulation, and mood.
For example, multiple studies have shown that long-term meditators have increased neuron density and preserved structure in areas of the brain (such as the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, temporal gyrus, and insula) associated with attention, memory, self-awareness, self-control, and emotion regulation. (1-4) Long-term meditators have also shown increased gray matter density in the brain stem, which may be related to improved self-control and emotion regulation. (5)
Research also demonstrates positive differences in brain function. For example, experienced meditators, compared to those with less or no meditation experience, show increased activation in areas of the brain associated with attention during tasks that require focus. (6-7) Experienced meditators also perform better on tasks that require focused attention and cognitive flexibility. (8-10)
The neuroplastic effects of meditation and yoga also include positive mood changes. A single session of yoga has been shown to increase brain levels of GABA, which is associated with reduced anxiety and improved mood. (10) An eight-week training program in mindful meditation and yoga led to changes in frontal brain activation--increased left prefrontal activity--associated with positive emotions and well-being. (11) A similar training helped preserve increased left prefrontal activity in previously suicidal individuals, preventing further deterioration of mood. (12) Meditation experience is also associated with increased activation of brain regions (such as the cingulate cortex and insula) associated with empathy for others. (13) A meditation intervention has been shown to increase experience of positive emotions, and these changes in mood further predicted increased sense of purpose in life and social support, and decreased illness and depression. (14)
In summary, mindfulness and yoga are potentially valuable tools for improving cognitive function, self-regulation, and mood, in part because of how they influence the structure and function of the brain.
-Written and References Compiled by Kelly McGonigal, PhD
1. Luders E, Toga AW, Lepore N, Gaser C. The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. NeuroImage. 2009;45:672–78.
2. Hölzel BK, Ott U, Gard T, Hempel H, Weygandt M, Morgen K, Vaitl D. Investigation of mindfulness meditation practitioners with voxel-based morphometry. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2008;3(1):55-61.
3. Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve DN, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, Fischl B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005;16(17):1893-7.
4. Pagnoni G, Cekic M. Age effects on gray matter volume and attentional performance in Zen meditation. Neurobiol Aging. 2007;28(10):1623-7.
5. Vestergaard-Poulsen P, van Beek M, Skewes J, Bjarkam CR, Stubberup M, Bertelsen J, Roepstorff A. Long-term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem. Neuroreport. 2009;20(2):170-4.
6. Brefczynski-Lewis JA, Lutz A, Schaefer HS, Levinson DB, Davidson RJ. Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2007;104(27):11483-8.
7. Baron Short E, Kose S, Mu Q, Borckardt J, Newberg A, George MS, Kozel FA. Regional brain activation during meditation shows time and practice effects: An exploratory FMRI study. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2007 Oct 27[Epub].
8. Slagter HA, Lutz A, Greischar LL, Francis AD, Nieuwenhuis S, Davis JM, Davidson RJ. Mental training affects distribution of limited brain resources. PLoS Biol. 2007;5(6):e138.
9. Moore A, Malinowski P. Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility.
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10. Garland E, Gaylord S, Park J. The role of mindfulness in positive reappraisal. Explore (NY). 2009;5(1):37-44.
10. Streeter CC, Jensen JE, Perlmutter RM, Cabral HJ, Tian H, Terhune DB, Ciraulo DA, Renshaw PF. Yoga asana sessions increase brain GABA levels: A pilot study. J Altern Complement Med. 2007;13(4):419-26.
11. Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, Urbanowski F, Harrington A, Bonus K, Sheridan JF. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. 2003;65(4):564-70.
12. Barnhofer T, Duggan D, Crane C, Hepburn S, Fennell MJ, Williams JM. Effects of meditation on frontal alpha-asymmetry in previously suicidal individuals. Neuroreport. 2007;18(7):709-12.
13. Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ. Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise. PLoS One. 2008;3(3):e1897.
14. Fredrickson BL, Cohn MA, Coffey KA, Pek J, Finkel SM. Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2008;95(5):1045-62.