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UCLA

Build A Bigger Brain

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By Mark Wheeler

Published Jan 1, 2010 8:00 AM


Let's all just calm down. Take a breath. Relax. Clear your mind. And make your brain grow bigger. Absurd? Not at all, according to new science from UCLA researchers.

The Bruin scientists used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of people who meditate, and discovered that certain regions of the brain were larger among long-term meditators. The areas affected include regions of the brain known for regulating emotions.

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"We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability and engage in mindful behavior," explains Eileen Luders, lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. "The observed differences in brain anatomy might give us a clue why meditators have these exceptional abilities."

Several of the beneficial aspects of meditation are well-known and include better focus and control over emotions, reduced levels of stress and bolstered immune systems. But less is known about the link between meditation and brain structure, which is why the growing gray matter is so fascinating.

In the study, Luders and her colleagues examined 44 people — 22 control subjects and 22 who had practiced various forms of meditation, including Zazen, Samatha and Vipassana, among others. The amount of time they had practiced ranged from five to 46 years, with an average of 24 years. More than half of the meditators participating in the study said that deep concentration was an essential part of their practice, and most meditated between 10 and 90 minutes every day.

The researchers used a high-resolution, three-dimensional form of MRI and two different approaches to measure differences in brain structure. One approach automatically divides the brain into several regions of interest, allowing researchers to compare the size of certain brain structures. The other segments the brain into different tissue types, allowing researchers to compare the amount of gray matter within specific regions of the brain.

The researchers found significantly larger cerebral measurements in meditators compared with the control group, including larger vol-umes of the right hippocampus and increased gray matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, the right thalamus and the left inferior temporal lobe. There were no regions where control subjects showed significantly larger volumes or more gray matter than meditators.

Because these areas of the brain are closely linked to emotion, Luders concludes, "These might be the neuronal underpinnings that give meditators the outstanding ability to regulate their emotions, and allow for well-adjusted responses to whatever life throws their way."

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