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Different types of meditation change the brain in different ways, a new study finds.

In one of the largest studies on meditation and the human brain to date, a team of neuroscience researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany examined 300 participants in a nine-month meditation program. The project, called ReSource, consisted of three periods of three months each. During this program, the participants each practiced three different types of meditation focused on improving attention, compassion or cognitive skills.

At the beginning of the program, and then again at the end of each three-month period, the researchers took measurements of the participants' brains using a variety of techniques, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The researchers found that not only did certain brain regions change substantially within the three-month periods, but these regions also changed differently based on the type of meditation the participants had practiced.

"We were surprised [by] how much can actually happen in three months, because three months isn't that long," said Veronika Engert, a neuroscience researcher at Max Planck. Engert was the lead author of one of two papers published on Oct. 4 by the research group in the journal Science Advances.

Engert told LiveScience that while changes in brain structure after intensive meditation programs have been observed before, this is the first time that researchers could clearly see the changes that followed a period of practicing a specific type of meditation.

The participants were divided into three groups, and practiced each type of meditation in a different order. This allowed the researchers to more reliably link the changes in the brain to the type of meditation that was being practiced.

For example, in one part of the study, a group of participants was asked to practice mindfulness-based attention for 30 minutes daily six days a week for three months. During this type of meditation, the participants were taught to focus on their breath with their eyes closed or to monitor tension in their bodies. At the end of the three-month period, the participants showed thickening in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area involved in complex thinking, decision-making and attention, Engert said.


After the three-month session that focused on mindfulness, that group moved on to types of mediation focused on developing social skills such as compassion and understanding a situation from a perspective of another person. As with the first session, the researchers observed different changes in the people's brains after each of the next two sessions.

"If people train [in the skill of] perspective-taking, we see changes in brain regions that are important for these cognitive processes" Engert said. Or, if people focus on affect, or emotion, "then we see changes in brain regions that are important for emotional regulation," she said.

But the participants' brains weren't the only things that were changing. The researchers also observed changes in the behavior of the participants, and these changes matched up with the changes in their brains.

Stress and meditation

In another part of the study, the researchers measured how the participants responded to a stressful situation similar to a job interview or an exam. The scientists found that all respondents who were practicing meditation reported feeling less stressed than people who were not meditating. However, only those participants practicing compassion and perspective-taking showed consistently lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva after the stressful situation, according to Engert.

"After this type of a stress test we usually see that cortisol rises after about 20 minutes," said Engert. "This rise in cortisol was lower by 51 percent in those subjects who had the social training."

One limitation of the study was that the participants included only healthy people who did not have any type of mental health condition. Engert said the researchers haven't looked at whether meditation could be used to, for example, help people suffering from depression or anxiety. However, Engert said, considering the fact that stress is a major contributor to a wide range of diseases that plague the modern world, the findings could help tailor approaches that could be used as preventive measures. Stress, according to Engert contributes not only to the development of depression but also cardiovascular or metabolic diseases.

In addition, the findings could help researchers develop tailored training programs for specific areas of the brain to help people perform better in various areas of their lives, she said, however, more research is needed to understand exactly how such programs affect the brain.

The team will now focus on studying the effects of the three mind-training techniques on children and people working in highly stressful professions, Engert said.