Reduced age-associated brain changes in expert meditators: a multimodal neuroimaging pilot study

31 August 2017

Chételat G, Mézenge F, Tomadesso C, Landeau B, Arenaza-Urquijo E, Rauchs G, André C, de Flores R, Egret S, Gonneaud J, Poisnel G, Chocat A, Quillard A, Desgranges B, Bloch JG, Ricard M, Lutz A.


Aging is associated with progressive cerebral volume and glucose metabolism decreases. Conditions such as stress and sleep difficulties exacerbate these changes and are risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Meditation practice, aiming towards stress reduction and emotion regulation, can downregulate these adverse factors. In this pilot study, we explored the possibility that lifelong meditation practice might reduce age-related brain changes by comparing structural MRI and FDG-PET data in 6 elderly expert meditators versus 67 elderly controls. We found increased gray matter volume and/or FDG metabolism in elderly expert meditators compared to controls in the bilateral ventromedial prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, and posterior cingulate cortex /precuneus. Most of these regions were also those exhibiting the strongest effects of age when assessed in a cohort of 186 controls aged 20 to 87 years. Moreover, complementary analyses showed that these changes were still observed when adjusting for lifestyle factors or using a smaller group of controls matched for education. Pending replication in a larger cohort of elderly expert meditators and longitudinal studies, these findings suggest that meditation practice could reduce age-associated structural and functional brain changes.


Aging is associated with a number of changes in the brain that, collectively, contribute to the decline in cognitive function observed in older adults. Neuroimaging studies have allowed us to track age-related macroscopic, structural, functional and molecular brain changes. They have shown substantial decreases with age in cerebral volume and glucose metabolism1, 2. These changes are not homogeneous throughout the brain as they predominate in the frontal cortex and are also often reported in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, sensorimotor, and perisylvian regions1,2,3. Other parietal and temporal brain regions, including the hippocampus, seem to be involved as well, yet findings are less consistent across studies. Age-related decreases in brain structure and function are known to be associated with decline in cognitive performance, especially in executive functions and episodic memory2, 4. Age is also associated with a significant increase in β-amyloid (Aβ) deposition, as measured with positron emission tomography (TEP) using different amyloid radiotracers5, 6. Decreased gray matter (GM) brain volume (especially in the hippocampus and temporal neocortex), and glucose metabolism (in the posterior cingulate cortex and temporo-parietal region), and the presence of Aβ deposition, are known to be associated with increased risk for dementia, and particularly for Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

It is increasingly acknowledged that several lifestyle factors modulate brain aging and the development of dementia; around a third of AD cases may be attributable to potentially modifiable risk factors7. These findings are of considerable interest as they suggest that a modification in these lifestyle factors might allow for the promotion of healthy brain aging, prevent or delay AD, and reduce AD risks. Thus, higher levels of cognitive and physical activity have been shown to be associated with higher brain volume and metabolism, lower cerebral Aβ deposition, and lower risk for cognitive decline and dementia in cognitively normal elderly8,9,10,11. Similarly, psycho-affective factors such as depression, stress and anxiety – and sleep difficulties often associated with these conditions – have also been identified as risk factors for AD, having a negative impact on brain structure and function, and reducing the mental health and well-being of the aging population. Moreover, stress has a detrimental effect on hippocampal integrity12, sleep disorders foster AD-related pathological processes13, and depressive symptoms in older persons are associated with an increase in dementia risk14.

Mental training for stress reduction and emotion regulation through meditation practice has the potential to downregulate various adverse factors15, 16, and thus could positively affect neurological conditions, and promote mental health and wellbeing in the aging population17. While meditation research is still in its infancy especially in elderly populations, there is emerging evidence that meditation practice improves cognition, mainly attention, but also memory, which are the most sensitive to aging and AD18. It has also been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, feelings of loneliness and social exclusion17, 19, and cardiovascular risk factors in older adults20. A previous study showed reduced age-effects on the volume of the putamen in meditators compared to controls aged 25 to 45 years21. Moreover, the effects of meditation on brain structure and function have consistently been reported in young and middle-aged adults, especially in frontal and limbic structures, as well as the insula22, 23.Interestingly, these structures are known to be particularly sensitive to aging and AD. Yet, only one research team investigated this question in the context of an elderly population, assessing brain volume in expert meditators and controls aged between 24 and 77 years. They showed that the regression line between GM volume and age was steeper in controls than in meditators, particularly in frontal and temporal brain regions24, 25. No study to date has explored changes in glucose metabolism associated with long-term meditation practice in young or elderly participants.

The present pilot study aimed at providing an overall picture of structural and functional brain changes in elderly expert meditators by measuring cerebral volume and glucose metabolism with MRI and FDG-PET scans. As a secondary objective, we investigated whether the brain regions exhibiting meditation-expertise-related effects were sensitive to aging and whether the elderly expert meditators differed from matched controls in this aging process. Additionally, complementary analyses were conducted to assess changes in cognition, lifestyle, and self-perceived sleep quality in the expert meditators, as well as to explore the hippocampal substructures in more detail. 192 participants were included in this study, including six expert meditators aged 60–70 years, and 186 controls aged 20–87 years. The whole control group was used to map age-related brain changes, while a group of 67 elderly controls (those aged 55–75) was used for direct comparison to the elderly expert meditators.

Full text, tables and images: