Diminished age-related decline of the amygdala in long-term meditation practitioners

1. Increasing age is associated with decrease in brain tissue, reduced volume of the amygdala, and cognitive decline 

2. Regular meditation may slow the age-related deterioration process

Evidence Rating Level: 3 (Average)

Meditation has been studied for its holistic impacts on the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of individuals. One specific subregion of the brain involved in meditation and mindfulness is the amygdala. This region is composed of gray matter which is known to decline in volume with age. This study aimed to better understand the benefits of regular meditation on the slowing of age-related cognitive decline, specifically looking at the amygdala. In order to assess the amygdala, boundaries were established to further quantify its volumetric gray matter, including the centromedial (CM), laterobasal (LB), and superficial (SF) subregions. To do so, the study compared regular meditation practitioners (n=50) to control participants (n=50). Participants were matched for age, sex, total intracranial volume, and underwent similar scanning parameters for brain mapping.  As its preferred means of neuroimaging, the study used T1 weighted magnetization gradient echo sequencing and also compared portions of participant’s gray matter, white matter, and cerebrospinal fluid. These samples were further stratified into CM, LB, and SF; volumes were calculated annually to further analyze changes. This analysis was done using a mass univariate general linear model. The study found that overall, increasing age does lead to smaller volumes in the amygdala and each of its subregions. However, this negative correlation was impacted by meditation with a significantly more gradual slope among meditators compared to controls. In fact, rates of annual tissue loss ranged between 0.379% and 0.505% in the controls compared to 0.027% in meditators. A limitation of the study was the relatively small sample size. Additionally, other health factors potentially influencing the brain, such as participants’ lifestyle, sleep, diet, and exercise habits, were not taken into account. Further research on other regions of the brain could be beneficial as it was noted that areas, such as the hippocampus, were found to be positively correlated with age in meditators. Overall, the study highlighted the benefit of meditation and the potential preventative effects of exercising the amygdala. This “use it or lose it” principle may encourage individuals to engage in mindfulness and meditation practices with the goal not of total avoidance, but rather slowing the ageing process.

Click to read the study in Psychosomatic Medicine

Image: PD

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