A meditation technique, practiced just for 11 hours, could help in structural changes in brain connectivity by targetting the part that monitors goal-driven behaviour.
The technique, called integrative body-mind training (IBMT), has been the focus of intense scrutiny by a team of Chinese researchers led by Yi-Yuan Tang of Dalian University of Technology in collaboration with University of Oregon psychologist Michael I. Posner.
IBMT was adapted from traditional Chinese medicine in the 1990s in China, where it is practiced by thousands of people.
It is now being taught to undergraduates involved in research on the method at the University of Oregon.
The new research involved 45 UO students (28 males and 17 females); 22 subjects received IBMT while 23 participants were in a control group that received the same amount of relaxation training.
The experiments involved the use of brain-imaging equipment in the UO's Robert and Beverly Lewis Center for Neuroimaging.
A type of magnetic resonance called diffusion tensor imaging allowed researchers to examine fibers connecting brain regions before and after training. The changes were strongest in connections involving the anterior cingulate, a brain area related to the ability to regulate emotions and behaviour.
The changes were observed only in those who practiced meditation and not in the control group.
The changes in connectivity began after six hours of training and became clear by 11 hours of practice.
The researchers said it is possible the changes resulted from a reorganization of white-matter tracts or by an increase of myelin that surrounds the connections.
"The importance of our findings relates to the ability to make structural changes in a brain network related to self regulation. The pathway that has the largest change due to IBMT is one that previously was shown to relate to individual differences in the person's ability to regulate conflict," said Posner.
The researchers currently are extending their evaluation to determine if longer exposure to IBMT will produce positive changes in the size of the anterior cingulate.
"We believe this new finding is of interest to the fields of education, health and neuroscience, as well as for the general public," said Tang.
In their conclusion, the researchers wrote that the new findings suggest a use of IBMT as a vehicle for understanding how training influences brain plasticity.
The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.