Yoga-trained brains of older women appear stronger on MRI

Practicing yoga builds cortical thickness in the prefrontal brain, possibly helping practitioners stay cognitively sharp in their later years.

That’s according to researchers in Brazil and the U.S. who recently reported their findings in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

Doctoral student Rui Ferreira Afonso of Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in São Paulo, Sara Lazar, PhD, of Harvard Medical School and colleagues used a T1-weighted MPRAGE MRI sequence to image 42 women who were at least 60 years old.

Half the women had practiced hatha yoga for at least eight years.

The other half, matched for age, years of formal education and physical activity level, had never practiced yoga, meditation or any other mind-body activities.

The researchers found the yoga practitioners showed significantly greater cortical thickness in left prefrontal lobe areas associated with attention and other executive functions, including portions of the lateral middle frontal gyrus, anterior superior frontal gyrus and dorsal superior frontal gyrus.

“When performing a yoga posture, muscles are engaged for a minimum amount of time in a state of attention (processed in the prefrontal cortex), similarly to what occurs in meditation,” the authors explain in their discussion. “The meditative process (for which attention is essential) is associated with increased oxyhemoglobin concentrations in the prefrontal cortex due to the increased blood flow to that region.”

Similarly, they add, alterations in attention and cognition result in different degrees of electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex.

“In our study, we observed alterations in areas associated with executive functions of attentional control rather than motor regions,” the authors write.

The study is available in full for free.

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