Most people know that the brain is smaller with age, at least in part due to loss of brain cells in parts of the brain related to perception, memory, and executive processes. Anything that can slow down or reverse the process should be of interest to all of us, whatever our age. A study I mentioned in April of last year (see the post here) showed that even brief mindfulness meditation training can make a difference in brain functions that often show declines with increasing age.
Now another study shows that mindfulness meditation, even over short periods of time, can actually make a difference in how thick the gray matter is in some parts of the brain. Gray matter is made up of actual nerve cells. Other parts of the brain are the white matter (basically, the connections between brain cells), and other cells that provide a supportive scaffolding for nerve cells and immune functions.
The study shows that just 8 weeks of meditation training made changes in parts of the brain associated with memory (the hippocampus) and complex information integration (the temporoparietal junction).
You don’t need special equipment or even special training to get started with mindfulness meditation, although an experienced teacher may be helpful. You can download meditation training materials off the Internet in a number of sites (check out iTunes). A favorite site of mine is Zencast.org. You can download basic meditation training talks there (free), focused on Zen Buddhism. But you don’t have to be a Buddhist to do mindfulness meditation.
Holzel BK et al (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191, 36-43. You can read the abstract here.