Meditation changes structure of the brain – experts respond

A short meditation program can produce physical changes in the brain, reports new research.

American and Chinese researchers report in PNAS this week that a month’s participation in a form of mindfulness meditation – called integrated body mind training likely – induces potentially beneficial changes in  a brain region implicated in self-regulation, suggesting that the method might prove useful in preventing or treating certain mental ailments.

Brain imaging analysis revealed that the meditation increased the amount of  interconnecting nerve fibres in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. Poor nerve activity in this part of the brain is associated with a range of mental problems, including attention deficit disorder, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia.

The authors note that if the mediation-induced increase in nerve fibres can be linked to behavioural changes such as better self control, the research would provide new avenues for using mediation to treat mental problems and offer insight into the underlying biological changes.

Our colleagues at the UK SMC collected the following expert commentary. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to contact a New Zealand expert, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476;

Dr Thorsten Barnhofer, Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, said:

“We have seen evidence from a number of studies showing significant brain changes following meditation training. What is remarkable about these findings is that they demonstrate mechanisms of change in connective fibres in the brain, particularly in areas that are crucial for self-regulation, and that these changes were visible after only a few hours of training. This is in line with the increasing trend of using mindfulness meditation in the treatment and prevention of depression and other emotional disorders.”

Dr Elena Antonova, Research Fellow specialising in the neuroscience of mindfulness and well-being, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, said:

“The findings of this study are potentially good news for all of us. If as little as 11 hours of mindfulness training makes the brain wiring more prolific and better insulated, then simply by being mindful, which is accessible to anyone at any time, we might enjoy a lifetime of mental clarity and emotional stability.”

Dr Eva Cyhlarova, Head of Research at the Mental Health Foundation, said:

“This study is another example of brain neuroplasticity in adulthood and how with some simple techniques we can affect its structure as well as its function. Furthermore, these changes appear to lead to improvements in mood, which is consistent with self-regulation being a core feature of many mental health problems.

“The study had a relatively short follow-up period, so it would be interesting to further examine the effect of the training over a longer period of time.

“If such a simple and cheap method of training shows positive results, there is hope for more people with mental health problems to be able to access support through affordable interventions.”