MRI shows Chinese meditation changes brain

U.  OREGON (US) — After practicing a form of Chinese meditation known as IBMT for 11 hours, people showed positive changes in brain connections.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed increases in brain-signaling connections and expansion of myelin, the protective fatty tissue that surrounds the axons, in the brain’s anterior cingulate region.

Deficits in activation in this part of the brain have been associated with attention deficit disorder, dementia, depression, schizophrenia, and many other disorders.

Participants also reported improvements in mood. University of Oregon scientists Yi-Yuan Tang and Michael Posner report the findings in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Integrative body–mind training (IBMT) was adapted from traditional Chinese medicine in the 1990s in China. It differs from other forms of meditation because it depends heavily on the inducement of a high degree of awareness and balance of the body, mind, and environment. The meditative state is facilitated through training and trainer-group dynamics, harmony, and resonance.


In 2010, research led by Tang, a visiting research professor at the University of Oregon, and Posner, professor of psychology, first reported positive structural changes in brain connectivity, based on functional MRI, that correlated to behavioral regulation. The study focused on 45 participating UO undergraduate students.

The new findings come from additional scrutiny—using an MRI technique known as diffusion tensor imaging—of the 2010 data and that from another study that involved 68 undergraduate students at China’s Dalian University of Technology.

Researchers found improved axon density but no change in myelin formation after two weeks of IBMT. After a month, or about 11 hours, both increases in axon density and myelin formation were seen with fractional anisotropy, axial diffusivity and radial diffusivity—important indexes for measuring the integrity of white matter fibers.

“This dynamic pattern of white matter change involving the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain network related to self-regulation, could provide a means for intervention to improve or prevent mental disorders,” the authors note.

“This study gives us a much more detailed picture of what it is that is actually changing,” Posner says. The magnitude of the changes, he adds, may be similar to changes found during brain development in early childhood, “allowing a new way to reveal how such changes might influence emotional and cognitive development.”

The improved mood changes noted in this and earlier studies are based on self-ratings of subjects based on a standard six-dimensional mood-state measure, says Tang, who is now the director of Texas Tech University’s Neuroimaging Institute.

Tang and Posner first reported findings related to IBMT in 2007, also in PNAS. They found that doing IBMT for five days prior to a mental math test led to low levels of the stress hormone cortisol among Chinese students. The experimental group also showed lower levels of anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue than students in a relaxation control group.

In 2009 in PNAS, Tang and colleagues found that IBMT subjects in China had increased blood flow in the right anterior cingulate cortex after receiving training for 20 minutes a day over five days. Compared with the relaxation group, IBMT subjects also had lower heart rates and skin conductance responses, increased belly breathing amplitude and decreased chest respiration rates.

China’s National Basic Research Program, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, and the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health (R21DA030066) supported the latest research. Researchers from Dalian University of Technology, the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences in Beijing, China, and National Institute on Drug Abuse in Baltimore, Md, collaborated on the study.

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