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Meditation Can Benefit the Aging Brain

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At Homberg Chiropractic and Wellness – your Knoxville chiropractor – we practice chiropractic biophysics, which has us focusing on restoring the normal curvature of your spine. As you’ve heard me say time and again, the normal curve in your neck improves the blood and oxygen flow to your brain – the command center of the entire nervous system.

As you know, the human brain is extremely complex. The brain contains about 86 billion neurons, cells that communicate with each other using chemical and electrical signals. This three-pound organ is the seat of intelligence, interpreter of the senses, initiator of body movement, and controller of behavior. Lying in its bony shell and washed by protective fluid, the brain is the source of all the qualities that define our humanity.

Coating the surface of the cerebrum and the cerebellum is a vital layer of tissue the thickness of a stack of two or three dimes. It is called the cortex, from the Latin word for bark. Most of the actual information processing in the brain takes place in the cerebral cortex. When people talk about gray matter” in the brain they are talking about this thin rind. The cortex is gray because nerves in this area lack the insulation that makes most other parts of the brain appear to be white. The folds in the brain add to its surface area and therefore increase the amount of gray matter and the quantity of information that can be processed.

One of the things known by physicians and researchers about the brain is that people age, their cortexes shrink. This affects decision making and memory. While we know that everything from diet to exercise to brain games such as crossword and other puzzles can help keep the brain young, a neuroscientist from Massachusetts General and Harvard Medical School conducted research that found mindful meditation can also keep the gray matter from shrinking.

The researcher first heard of the benefits of meditation from your yoga teacher. While skeptical at first, she began to dig deeper into evidence that showed meditation decreased stress, depression, anxiety, reduces pain and insomnia. She then began to study the effects on her own. Her first study, she looked at long-term meditators and found that they had increased gray matter in several areas of the brain including the auditory and sensory cortex.

However, the neuroscientist also found that the meditators had more gray matter in another brain region, this time linked to decision-making and working memory: the frontal cortex. In fact, while most people see their cortexes shrink as they age, 50-year-old meditators in the study had the same amount of gray matter as those half their age.

Her first study involved long-term meditators who had obviously already seen the result of the practice. Her next study, she looked at a group that began meditating for the first time and practiced for eight weeks. The result? There was thickening in several regions of the brain, including the left hippocampus (involved in learning, memory, and emotional regulation); the TPJ (involved in empathy and the ability to take multiple perspectives); and a part of the brainstem called the pons (where regulatory neurotransmitters are generated). Plus, the brains of the new meditators saw shrinkage of the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with fear, anxiety, and aggression. This reduction in size of the amygdala correlated to reduced stress levels in those participants.

Think about how over-taxed our brains are these days – constantly checking e-mail, texting, surfing websites. Give meditation a chance and see if you can tell a difference in how your brain functions. If you’d like to learn more about mindful meditation, let us know the next time you call Homberg Chiropractic and Wellness to make an appointment.

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