Meditation is the practice of focusing your mind on a single thought or idea for an extended period of time in order to achieve some benefit. The goals of meditation can vary and include increased focus, increased awareness or “presence,” better memory, decreased stress and achieving a state of enlightenment. Physiological advantages have also been reported, such as decreased blood pressure and pain reduction.
Though meditation has been practiced all over the world for thousands of years, the mechanism by which it works is still largely unknown. A recent study published in the journal NeuroImage suggests that mediation may work by strengthening the connections between brain regions, thereby building more robust neural networks.
The study compared age and gender matched meditators with non-meditators. Researchers used a method called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) that detects the size and direction of white matter tracts in the brain. White matter is made up of long neuronal processes called axons that transmit information from one area of the brain to another. DTI is used to measure the integrity of white matter tracts and is thought to indicate the strength of neural connections.
Meditators had stronger DTI measures than non-meditators, particularly in the corticospinal tract (axons from the brain to the rest of the body), the superior longitudinal fasciculus (connections between executive brain areas and sensory regions) and the uncinate fasciculus (connects executive brain areas to emotion and memory regions). Meditators also seemed to have less age-related degeneration.
Though this was not a randomized controlled trial and cannot determine if mediation was the cause of the structural changes, this study opens a new area of research for exploring the role of meditation and brain training in strengthening and preserving the neural connections necessary for memory and other important cognitive tasks.