Meditation alters brain connectivity in areas associated with emotion, MRI shows

Practicing meditation has a significant impact on perceived stress levels and alters brain regions associated with regulating emotion, a new MRI study revealed.

That research—published in the March issue of Brain and Cognition— specifically analyzed Transcendental Meditation’s effect on a small number of volunteers. Using functional MRI, along with stress and anxiety questionnaires, the authors found that practitioners felt less stressed after practicing meditation, which led to connectivity changes in multiple areas of their brain.

“The fact that Transcendental Meditation has measurable effects on the 'dialogue' between brain structures involved in the modulation of affective states opens new perspectives for the understanding of brain-mind relationships," first author, Giulia Avvenuti, PhD, with IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca in Italy, said in a statement.

Transcendental Meditation requires practitioners to repeat a particular sound with no literal meaning—known as a mantra—to reach a level of “consciousness without content,” the authors wrote. A host of past imaging studies have shown connectivity alterations in brain regions as a result of this practice, notably in the posterior cingulate cortex and frontal central executive network. It is less known, however, whether Transcendental Meditation impacts functional brain changes within the same network.

For their study, Avvenuti et al. split 34 healthy volunteers into two groups. The first (19 individuals) meditated for 40 minutes each day, dividing their time between two sessions, and the second group did not meditate at all. Prior to the study, each person completed a psychometric questionnaire to measure their anxiety and stress levels, along with a fMRI exam to determine their baseline brain activity. Each volunteer underwent the same group of tests three months into the study and after it was over.

Compared to those who did not meditate, participants who did reported “significantly” lower perceived stress and anxiety levels. And fMRI detected connectivity changes in the brain that may help explain this drop.

“Magnetic resonance imaging also shows that the reduction of anxiety levels is associated with specific changes in the connectivity between different cerebral areas, such as precuneus, left parietal lobe and insula, which all have an important role in the modulation of emotions and inner states," Avvenuti added. "In the control group, instead, none of these changes was observed.”

A similar study published late last year used PET imaging to analyze how Transcendental Meditation impacted patients with coronary heart disease. That research, shared in the Journal of Nuclear Cardiology, reported that those who incorporated meditation into their heart rehab routine increased their cardiac blood flow by more than 20%.

Both this study and the one published in 2019 are preliminary, the authors noted. However, Avvenuti and colleagues believe even a few months of practice can produce a positive impact.  

Transcendental Meditation has gained worldwide popularity thanks in part to the David Lynch Foundation, which also co-financed this study.