Experts review evidence yoga will work for the brain

Scientists have known for many years that aerobic fitness exercise strengthens the mind and plays a part in the growth of new neurons, but few studies have examined how yoga affects mental performance. Analysis the science finds evidence that yoga enhances lots of the same brain structures and functions that take advantage of aerobic workout.

The review, published in the journal Brain Plasticity, dedicated to 11 studies of the connection between yoga brain and practice health. Five of the studies engaged people who have no background in yoga practice in one single or even more yoga sessions each week over an interval of 10-24 weeks, comparing brain health by the end and start of the intervention. One other studies measured brain differences between individuals who regularly practice yoga and people who don’t.

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

“From these 11 studies, we identified some brain regions that consistently up come, and they are not so distinctive from what we see with exercise research surprisingly, ” said University of Illinois community and kinesiology health professor Neha Gothe, who led the extensive research with Wayne State University psychology professor Jessica Damoiseaux.

“As an example, we see increases in the amount of the hippocampus with yoga practice,” Gothe said. Many respected reports looking at the mind effects of aerobic fitness exercise have shown the same escalation in hippocampus size with time, she said.

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

Though most of the scholarly studies are exploratory rather than conclusive, the extensive research points to other important brain changes related to regular yoga practice, Damoiseaux said. The amygdala, a brain structure that plays a role in emotional regulation, is often larger in yoga practitioners than inside their peers who don’t practice yoga. The prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and brain networks including the default mode network also are generally larger or maybe more efficient in those that regularly practice yoga.

“The prefrontal cortex, a brain region behind the forehead just, is important to planning, decision-making, multitasking, contemplating your choices and picking the best option,” Damoiseaux said. “The default mode network is really a pair of brain regions associated with taking into consideration the self, memory and planning.”

Like the amygdala, the cingulate cortex is the main limbic system, a circuit of structures that plays an integral role in emotional regulation, memory and learning, she said.

The studies also realize that the brain changes noticed in individuals practicing yoga are connected with better performance on cognitive tests or measures of emotional regulation.

The discovery that yoga might have similar effects on mental performance to aerobic workout is intriguing and warrants more study, Gothe said.

“Yoga just isn’t aerobic in nature, so there has to be other mechanisms ultimately causing these brain changes,” she said. “To date, we don’t have evidence to spot what those mechanisms are.”

She suspects that enhancing emotional regulation is just a key to yoga’s results on the brain. Studies link stress in animals and humans to shrinkage of the hippocampus and poorer performance on tests of memory, as an example, she said.

“In just one of my previous studies, we were taking a look at how yoga changes the cortisol stress response,” Gothe said. “We unearthed that people who had done yoga for eight weeks had an attenuated cortisol a reaction to stress that was related to better performance on tests of decision-making, attention and task-switching.”

Yoga helps individuals with or without anxiety disorders manage their stress, Gothe said.

“The practice of yoga helps improve emotional regulation to cut back stress, depression and anxiety,” she said. “And that generally seems to improve brain functioning.”

The researchers say there’s a requirement for more — and much more rigorous — research into yoga’s effects on the mind. They recommend large intervention studies that engage participants in yoga for months, match yoga groups with active control groups, and measure changes in mental performance and performance on cognitive tests using standard approaches that permit easy comparisons with other forms of exercise.

“The science is pointing to yoga being very theraputic for healthy brain function, but we truly need more well-controlled and rigorous intervention studies to ensure these initial findings,” Damoiseaux said.

Gothe can be an affiliate of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Technology and Science at the U. of I. Damoiseaux can be an affiliate of the Institute of Gerontology at WSU.

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