“Meditation is proven to be the serene way to get smarter,” reported the Daily Mail . It said scientists found that even a short course of meditation “strengthens connections between the regions of the brain that regulate our emotional responses”.
The study in question compared the brains scans of people who received 11 hours of meditative sessions over a period of a month to those of people who were shown basic relaxation techniques. People who received meditation sessions were found to have more changes in the white matter of the brain in an area called the corona radiata.
The study was relatively small (45 people), and only included healthy young adults. It did not look at whether these brain changes were linked to changes in behaviour, intelligence or emotions. Overall, this study may further our understanding of the effects meditation can have on the cells of the brain, but it does not further our understanding of any mental health benefits.
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Technology In Dalian, China, and other research centres in the US. It was funded by the James S. Bower and John Templeton Foundations, National Natural Science Foundation of China, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse-Intramural Research Programme. It was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS).
Although the Daily Mail story does accurately report the research, the study does not prove that meditation could help us “get smarter” as suggested in their headline.
The researchers were interested in the effects of meditation on the brain. In this randomised controlled trial, they compared the effects of a meditation technique called integrative body-mind training (IBMT) on the brain to the effects of basic relaxation training. They say their previous work has suggested that three hours of IBMT increases activity in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), thought to be involved in our ability to control our thoughts, emotions and behaviour (self-regulation).
The researchers report that many health and neurological disorders have been associated with problems in the activity of the ACC, and that increasing activity in this area could possibly help treat or prevent these disorders.
In this study, the researchers wanted to see if a short course of IBMT could affect the characteristics of nerve cells in the brain, particularly in the ACC region.
A strength of this study is that the participants were randomly assigned to the treatment they were given, which should ensure that any differences between the groups are due to the meditation or relaxation received rather than anything else.
The researchers enrolled 45 healthy undergraduate student volunteers. The volunteers were randomly allocated to receive either 11 hours of IBMT or relaxation training. Individual training sessions lasted 30 minutes and took place over one month. Before and after each session, the researchers took a brain scan of each volunteer, and assessed whether there were any changes in the white matter or grey matter in the brain. They then looked at any differences between the groups.
IBMT involved body relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness training (awareness of current body, emotion and mind state), and sessions were accompanied by music playing in the background. The training was guided by an IBMT coach and an audio CD with recorded instructions. Relaxation training involved the relaxing of different muscle groups over the body guided by a tutor and a CD with recorded instructions.
The grey matter of the brain contains the main body of the nerve cells and the white matter contains the long protrusions of the nerve cells (called axons) that make connections with other nerve cells. To examine the white matter of the brain, the researchers used a method called fractional anisotropy. This can indicate changes in the fatty layer wrapped around the axons that helps them to send messages efficiently, or changes in how the white matter is organised.
The researchers also looked at whether the volume of grey matter changed after training.
People who had received the short course of IBMT had more changes in the white matter of the brain in an area called the “left corona radiata”, compared to those who had received relaxation training. The corona radiata connects the anterior cingulate cortex to other parts of the brain.
Neither group showed changes in the volume of grey matter of the brain.
The researchers conclude that “IBMT could provide a means for improving self-regulation and perhaps reducing or preventing various mental disorders”.
This research suggests that IBMT can lead to changes within the brain that are not seen with basic relaxation changes. However, this study did not look at whether these structural brain changes were related to changes in a person’s brain function or behaviour.
Other limitations are the relatively small size of the study, and that only healthy young adults took part. This means that the study may not be representative of people of different age groups, or people with mental illnesses.
Overall, this study may further our understanding of the effects that meditation can have on brain cells, but not our understanding of any potential health benefits.