Studies show how yoga may help boost age-related areas of brain

There may be other benefits to yoga aside from weight loss or reduced stress.

According to a December research article, participating in the ancient mind and body practice can have benefits on the mind, including parts of the brain responsible for memory and thinking.

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Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and Wayne State University reviewed 11 studies analyzing how yoga affects the brain’s structures, function and blood flow. Yoga was shown to have a positive effect on the structure and/or function of various parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which is involved in forming new memories, the amygdala, which is essential in feeling and perceiving emotion, and the prefrontal cortex, which contributes to focusing and impulse control.

“The studies offer promising early evidence that behavioral interventions like yoga may hold promise to mitigate age-related and neurodegenerative declines as many of the regions identified are known to demonstrate significant age-related atrophy,” the review paper said.

Recently, Neha Gothe, director of the Exercise Psychology Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who was the review’s lead researcher, told Scientific American the studies were mostly small and it is a “nascent field."

Still, three areas of consistency emerged.

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One was that yoga practice could be associated with more gray matter volume in the hippocampus. Another was the increased volume in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex, and the third was increased connectivity across the default mode network. The latter plays a part in “what we call self-referential processing—processing information about yourself,” review paper co-author Jessica Damoiseaux, a cognitive neuroscientist at Wayne State University, told the publication for the November issue.

While the significance of the increased volume of gray matter it’s not completely clear, Damoiseaux said “it suggests there may be more connections between neurons, which can indicate better functioning.”

Better studies built on smaller experiments will produce clearer studies, according to Scientific American. Recently, Gothe got a federal grant for a study that will randomly assign 168 older adults to six months of yoga, aerobic exercise, or stretching and strengthening courses.

The aim is to examine the influence of the different regimens on brain anatomy and cognitive performance.