A recent study by Harvard instructor Dr. Sara W. Lazar, has shown that meditation can help to increase brain function, reduce the effects of aging on the brain, and improve concentration and memory. Lazar, whose primary appointment is at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), initiated the study as a response to claims that meditation improved brain function and reduced the effects of aging. According to Dr. Lazar, no previous work had been done to actually analyze the physiological effects of one’s thoughts. However, this study provided “some really strong physical evidence that there are some long-term physical affects” of meditation, she said. “Dr. Lazar’s findings are relatively unique; they show that the mind, through practice, can increase the thickness of the prefrontal cortex,” according to fellow corroborator on the study, Dr. Herbert Benson—the Mind/Body Medical Institute Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. This thickening of the cortex is contrary to what should happen as the brain ages so the researchers concluded that the meditation was responsible for this physical effect. “When compared to age match controls, the people who weren’t evoking the relaxation response had thinner cortexes,” commented Benson. The group that was tested ranged from 25-50-year-olds who meditated lightly—approximately 40 minutes a day. The implications of these findings could be very important, said Lazar and Benson. After completing this study, Lazar said she believes, “The effects of meditation can counter the effect of age.” If the findings of the study can be confirmed through follow-up research, meditation could be prescribed just like any other healthcare, said Benson. Benson said he believes this study shows that meditation is just “one of scores of techniques that bring about a physiologic response.” Meditation, according to Benson, is one of the weapons in the arsenal of fighting aging of the brain. A follow-up study is being planned by Lazar to confirm the findings of her research. In the new study, people will be tested at two points in time, once before meditation starts and once after to show the effects meditation has specifically on memory and attention, she explained. As people live longer than ever before, aging brains become a significant problem. Lazar said she hopes to shed more light on how meditation might be used to combat this aging and perhaps even reverse it.
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