How Yoga Changes the Brain and May Guard Against Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Pho­to by Abhisek Sar­da, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

I tend to be some­what skep­ti­cal of sci­en­tif­ic research that focus­es sole­ly on what prac­tices like med­i­ta­tion do to the grey­ish-pink­ish-white stuff inside our skulls. Humans are too com­plex to be treat­ed like brains in vats. Holis­tic dis­ci­plines like med­i­ta­tion and yoga empha­size the union of mind and body, and neu­ro­sci­en­tists have shown how men­tal and emo­tion­al health is as tied to the func­tion­ing of our cir­cu­la­to­ry sys­tems and micro­bio­mes as it is to prop­er brain func­tion.

On the oth­er hand, there’s no deny­ing the impor­tance of brain health, giv­en that it’s the one organ we may nev­er be able to replace. While we may have grown accus­tomed to, and maybe even weary of, see­ing mind­ful­ness under the scan­ner, the neu­ro­science of yoga hasn’t received near­ly as much press. This is chang­ing for sev­er­al rea­sons. Most promi­nent­ly, “yoga has par­tic­u­lar­ly gained trac­tion as a research area of inter­est in its promis­ing poten­tial of ther­a­py to com­bat the alarm­ing increase in age-relat­ed neu­ro­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases.”

So notes a sys­temic review of the cur­rent lit­er­a­ture on yoga and brain health pub­lished in the jour­nal Brain Plas­tic­i­ty this past Novem­ber. The authors sur­veyed 11 dif­fer­ent stud­ies, all of which pre­served the typ­i­cal Hatha yoga mix of pos­tures, med­i­ta­tion, and breath­ing exer­cis­es in their method­ol­o­gy. Each study also “used brain-imag­ing tech­niques such as MRI, func­tion­al MRI or sin­gle-pho­ton emis­sion com­put­er­ized tomog­ra­phy” to assess phys­i­cal brain changes, reports Sci­ence Dai­ly.

The sur­vey authors define yoga as “the most pop­u­lar form of com­ple­men­tary ther­a­py prac­ticed by more than 13 mil­lion adults,” as well as an ancient prac­tice that “dates back over 2000 years to ancient India.” Whether one does yoga in more spir­i­tu­al or more sec­u­lar con­texts, its “acute and inter­ven­tion effects on cog­ni­tion are evi­dent” across the entire range of stud­ies. The research con­firms much of what we might expect—yoga has a pos­i­tive effect on mood, demon­strat­ing “the poten­tial to improve anx­i­ety, depres­sion, stress and over­all men­tal health.”

The sur­vey also showed con­sis­tent find­ings we might not have expect­ed. Despite the typ­i­cal­ly slow pace of a Hatha yoga rou­tine, all the stud­ies found evi­dence that “yoga enhances many of the same brain struc­tures and func­tions that ben­e­fit from aer­o­bic exer­cise,” as Sci­ence Dai­ly points out. “From these 11 stud­ies, we iden­ti­fied some brain regions that con­sis­tent­ly come up, and they are sur­pris­ing­ly not very dif­fer­ent from what we see with exer­cise research,” says lead author Neha Gotha, kine­si­ol­o­gy and com­mu­ni­ty health pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois.

Gotha iden­ti­fies one of those ben­e­fits as an increase in the size of the hip­pocam­pus, the region of the brain that tends to shrink with age and “the struc­ture that is first affect­ed in demen­tia and Alzheimer’s dis­ease.” Oth­er regions affect­ed include the amyg­dala, which con­tributes to emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion, and the pre­frontal cor­tex, which is “essen­tial to plan­ning, deci­sion-mak­ing, mul­ti­task­ing, think­ing about your options and pick­ing the right option,” says study co-author Jes­si­ca Damoi­seaux, psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty.

“Yoga is not aer­o­bic in nature,” says Gotha, “so there must be oth­er mech­a­nisms lead­ing to these brain changes. So far we don’t have the evi­dence to iden­ti­fy what those mech­a­nisms are.”  The effects, how­ev­er, aren’t only sim­i­lar to those of more vig­or­ous exer­cise; in some cas­es, yoga seemed even more effec­tive. Nicole McDer­mott at Greatist explains that in one study Gotha con­duct­ed with 30 female col­leagues, “reac­tion times were short­er and accu­ra­cy was greater after the yoga ses­sion com­pared to 20 min­utes of a tread­mill.” Even more sur­pris­ing­ly, “jog­ging result­ed in near­ly the same cog­ni­tive per­for­mance as the base­line test­ing when the women didn’t exer­cise at all.”

These results should be seen as pro­vi­sion­al and pre­lim­i­nary. “We need more rig­or­ous and well-con­trolled inter­ven­tion stud­ies to con­firm these ini­tial find­ings,” Damoi­seaux cau­tions. But they may con­tribute to grow­ing evi­dence of the “mind-body con­nec­tion” yoga helps fos­ter. Bet­ter mood and low­ered stress tend to improve brain health over­all. Oth­er stud­ies sup­port these con­clu­sions, such as research show­ing how yoga prac­tice over time enlarges the somatosen­so­ry cor­tex, which con­tains a “men­tal map” of the body and pro­motes greater self-aware­ness.

No doubt we’ll see many more stud­ies on yoga and brain func­tion in the com­ing years. For the time being, the sci­ence strong­ly sug­gests that when we hit the yoga mat to lim­ber up and de-stress, we’re also help­ing to proof our brains against debil­i­tat­ing effects of aging like mem­o­ry loss and cog­ni­tive decline. Read Gotha and Damoi­seaux’s full sur­vey of the neu­ro­science of yoga here.

via Sci­ence Dai­ly

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Get Start­ed with Yoga: Free Yoga Lessons on YouTube

Son­ny Rollins Describes How 50 Years of Prac­tic­ing Yoga Made Him a Bet­ter Musi­cian

Yoga in an X‑Ray Machine

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Stephanie says:

    The arti­cle on yoga to help pre­vent Alzheimer’s and Demen­tia real­ly opened my eyes. I did­n’t real­ize just how much yoga does help in so many ways for self. Thank you Open Cul­ture… Thank you for this IMPORTANT INFORMATION 🙏

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