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The Cutting Edge

How to Build a Bigger Brain

UCLA Medicine Fall 2009-MeditationPUSH-UPS, crunches, gyms, personal trainers – people have many strategies for building bigger muscles. But what can one do to build a bigger brain?


In a study published in the journal NeuroImage, UCLA researchers who used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of people who meditate report that certain regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger than in a similar control group. Specifi cally, meditators showed signifi cantly larger volumes of the hippocampus and areas within the orbito-frontal cortex, the thalamus and the inferior temporal gyrus – all regions known for regulating emotions.

“We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability and engage in mindful behavior,” says Eileen Luders, Ph.D., 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.”

Dr. Luders and her colleagues examined 44 people – 22 control subjects and 22 who had practiced various forms of meditation. The amount of time they had practiced ranged from five to 46 years, with an average of 24 years. More than half of all the meditators said that deep concentration was an essential part of their practice, and most meditated between 10 and 90 minutes every day.

Using high-resolution MRI technology, the researchers measured differences in brain structure. They found significantly larger cerebral measurements in meditators compared with controls, including larger volumes of the right hippocampus and increased gray matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, the right thalamus and the left inferior temporal lobe. Because these areas of the brain are closely linked to emotion, Dr. Luders says, “they 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.”

What’s not known, she says, and will require further study, are what the specifi c correlates are on a microscopic level – that is, whether it’s an increased number of neurons, the larger size of the neurons or a particular “wiring” pattern meditators may develop that other people don’t.


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