‘Yoga Enhances Brain Structures And Functions; Boosts Emotional Regulation And Cognitive Ability’ – Study

Yoga enhances brain structures that are involved in memory processing, emotional regulation, learning, and decision-making, find researchers. The investigations also discover a link between improved performance on cognitive tests or emotional management tests and the brain alterations observed in yoga practitioners.

Scientists have known for decades that aerobic exercise strengthens the brain and contributes to the growth of new neurons, but few studies have examined how yoga affects the brain. A review of the science finds evidence that yoga enhances many of the same brain structures and functions that benefit from aerobic exercise.

Relationship between Yoga practice and brain health

A study of 11 studies on the connection between yoga practice and brain health was published in the journal Brain Plasticity. Five of the studies involved participants who had no prior yoga experience in one or more weekly yoga sessions over the course of 10 to 24 weeks, comparing brain health before and after the intervention. The other studies examined the brains of those who frequently practice yoga compared to others who don’t. Each study made use of single-photon emission computer tomography, functional MRI, or other brain-imaging methods. Everyone participates in Hatha yoga, which entails breathing techniques, body motions, and meditation.

Increases in the volume of the hippocampus with yoga practice

“From these 11 studies, we identified some brain regions that consistently come up, and they are surprisingly not very different from what we see with exercise research,” said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Neha Gothe, who led the research with Wayne State University psychology professor Jessica Damoiseaux. “For example, we see increases in the volume of the hippocampus with yoga practice,” Gothe said. Many studies looking at the brain effects of aerobic exercise have shown a similar increase in hippocampus size over time, she said. The hippocampus is involved in memory processing and is known to shrink with age, Gothe said. “It is also the structure that is first affected in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Amygdala is larger in yoga practitioners

The research indicates further significant brain alterations connected to regular yoga practice, even if many of the studies are exploratory and not conclusive, according to Damoiseaux. In comparison to their colleagues who don’t practice yoga, yoga practitioners tend to have larger amygdalas, a brain region that aids in controlling emotions. Yoga practitioners also frequently have a larger or more effective prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, and brain networks including the default mode network.

“The prefrontal cortex, a brain region just behind the forehead, is essential to planning, decision-making, multitasking, thinking about your options, and picking the right option,” Damoiseaux said. “The default mode network is a set of brain regions involved in thinking about the self, planning, and memory.” According to the expert, the cingulate cortex, like the amygdala, is a component of the limbic system, a network of structures that is essential for memory, learning, and emotional control.

Yoga drives better performance on cognitive tests and measures of emotional regulation

The investigations also discover a link between improved performance on cognitive tests or emotional management tests and the brain alterations observed in yoga practitioners. According to Gothe, the finding that yoga might affect the brain similarly to aerobic exercise is intriguing and calls for further research. “Yoga is not aerobic in nature, so there must be other mechanisms leading to these brain changes,” she said. “So far, we don’t have the evidence to identify those mechanisms.

Enhancing emotional regulation is key to Yoga’s positive effect

Gothe suspects that the secret to yoga’s beneficial effects on the brain is improving emotional regulation. According to studies, stress can cause the hippocampus to shrink in humans and animals as well as cause them to perform worse on memory tests. “In one of my previous studies, we were looking at how yoga changes the cortisol stress response,” Gothe said. “We found that those who had done yoga for eight weeks had an attenuated cortisol response to stress that was associated with better performance on tests of decision-making, task-switching, and attention.”

Yoga helps people with or without anxiety disorders manage their stress, Gothe said. “The practice of yoga helps improve emotional regulation to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression,” she said. “And that seems to improve brain functioning.”

Yoga beneficial for healthy brain function

The benefits of yoga on the brain, according to the experts, require further and more rigorous study. They advocate for large-scale intervention trials in which people practice yoga for several months, active control groups are matched with yoga groups, and cognitive performance is assessed using standardized methods that make it simple to compare yoga with other forms of exercise.

“The science is pointing to yoga being beneficial for healthy brain function, but we need more rigorous and well-controlled intervention studies to confirm these initial findings,” Damoiseaux said. Gothe is an affiliate of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the U. of I. Damoiseaux is an affiliate of the Institute of Gerontology at WSU.

Story Source:
Materials provided by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, News Bureau. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:
Neha P. Gothe, Imadh Khan, Jessica Hayes, Emily Erlenbach, Jessica S. Damoiseaux. Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature. Brain Plasticity, 2019; 1 DOI: 10.3233/BPL-190084

Page citation:
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, News Bureau. “Experts review evidence yoga is good for the brain.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 December 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/12/191212105851.htm>.

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