Can yoga and meditation help stave off cognitive decline and increase your brain’s efficiency and resilience? A study led by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital says the answer may be yes.
An international team of researchers examined the brain functioning of 47, healthy middle-aged yoga and meditation practitioners and normal controls to see whether the groups differed in fluid intelligence, resilience, function and efficiency.
Participants included 16 yoga practitioners (mean age 49.4 years, SD =7.8), 16 meditators (mean age 54.1 years, SD =8.2), and 15 controls (mean age 52.9 years, SD =9.8). Groups were matched for age, gender, education, race and handedness.
Yoga practitioners trained in the Kripalu tradition had an average of 13,534 (SD = 9,950) hours of yoga experience. Individuals from the Insight Meditation tradition had an average of 7,458 (SD = 5,734) hours of meditation practice. Controls had no experience with either yoga or meditation.
Members of each group were asked to complete a number of behavioral measures of fluid and verbal intelligence, cognitive functioning and mindfulness. Fluid intelligence encompasses skills such as logical thinking, problem solving, and the capacity to identify patterns and relationships when solving novel problems.
Participants also reported on their weekly physical activity and how often they engaged in cognitive activities like reading, writing, solving puzzles, and playing card and board games. Images of their brains were then obtained using an MRI scanner.
Yoga Associated with Higher Brain Functioning and Resilience
Overall, results revealed that yoga practitioners and meditators had a lower rate of age-related decline of fluid intelligence compared to normal controls. This reduced decline was most pronounced for yoga practitioners.
Yoga practitioners also demonstrated significantly greater global efficiency, network integration and “small worldness” than control group members, whereas the difference between meditators and the control group was not significant.
Small worldness refers to networks, or clusters of connections between neighboring brain nodes. These networks are associated with brain efficiency and dynamic complexity.
Together these findings suggest that yoga practitioners tend to have higher levels of brain network integration and efficiency compared to controls. While this was also true for meditators, the effects were not as strong as those in the yoga group.
Yoga Linked to More Resilient Brain Functioning
Researchers also tested the resilience of participants’ brains by simulating damage to these functional networks by altering patterns of connectivity between brain nodes. They discovered that yoga practitioners have more resilient networks when compared to meditators and control group members.
Lastly, investigators examined whether a measure of mindfulness would be related to greater fluid intelligence and network resilience. As anticipated, yoga and meditation practitioners had higher mindfulness scores than controls.
Levels of mindfulness were significantly correlated with fluid intelligence, network resilience, global efficiency and network integration. This suggests that mindfulness is associated with greater fluid intelligence and more integrated and resilient brain networks.
Taken as a whole, results of this study suggest that both yoga and meditation are effective in maintaining higher levels of brain performance in middle-aged adults. This study is important as it moves the field beyond knowledge of the structural effects of these practices on brain development to a greater understanding of the functional significance of these differences.
Originally published at YogaUOnline