Studies Show Yoga Improves Memory And Brain Function

Studies Show Yoga Improves Memory And Brain Function from Natural Blaze

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Scientists have known for decades that aerobic exercise strengthens the brain and contributes to the growth of new neurons, but few studies have examined how yoga affects the brain. A review of the science finds evidence that yoga enhances many of the same brain structures and functions that benefit from aerobic exercise.

The review, published in the journal Brain Plasticity, focused on 11 studies of the relationship between yoga practice and brain health. Five of the studies engaged individuals with no background in yoga practice in one or more yoga sessions per week over a period of 10-24 weeks, comparing brain health at the beginning and end of the intervention. The other studies measured brain differences between individuals who regularly practice yoga and those who don’t.

Each of the studies used brain-imaging techniques such as MRI, functional MRI or single-photon emission computerized tomography. All involved Hatha yoga, which includes body movements, meditation and breathing exercises.

“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,” said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Neha Gothe, who led the research with Wayne State University psychology professor Jessica Damoiseaux.

“For example, we see increases in the volume of the hippocampus with yoga practice,” Gothe said. Many studies looking at the brain effects of aerobic exercise have shown a similar increase in hippocampus size over time, she said.

IMAGE: U. of I. kinesiology and community health professor Neha Gothe explores the relationship between physical activity and cognitive aging. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.

The hippocampus is involved in memory processing and is known to shrink with age, Gothe said. “It is also the structure that is first affected in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Though many of the studies are exploratory and not conclusive, the research points to other important brain changes associated with regular yoga practice, Damoiseaux said. The amygdala, a brain structure that contributes to emotional regulation, tends to be larger in yoga practitioners than in their peers who do not practice yoga. The prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and brain networks such as the default mode network also tend to be larger or more efficient in those who regularly practice yoga.

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