By Liz Drummond
I’ve always thought of meditation as something other people do; as something that wouldn't benefit my life. But after talking with Professor Nicolas Cherbuin, I’ve changed my mind.
Professor Cherbuin, from the ANU Research School of Population Health, investigates how our brains age. He focuses on identifying risk and protective factors that can be modified to reduce brain ageing and cognitive decline. To do this, Professor Cherbuin analyses MRI scans to quantify how brain structures change in relation to health, lifestyle, and environment. And it turns out meditation really can change your brain.
“Our research shows that people who mediate have brains which appear on average 7.5 years younger at age 50 compared to people who do not,” says Professor Cherbuin.
Meditation has long been known to calm the mind and increase mindfulness, but what is the science behind this reduction in cognitive decline?
“It’s likely due to decreased stress levels leading to lower inflammation, which damages cells including neurons, and increased creation of new neurons in the hippocampus (an area of the brain responsible for memory and learning),” he says.
“Meditation promotes better cardio-vascular health too, which ensures the brain receives enough blood flow, oxygen, and nutrients. And it is also likely that the intense meditation practice creates more connection between neurons.”
That’s a pretty impressive list of benefits.
Health journalist and filmmaker Shannon Harvey decided to road-test this theory for herself. Professor Cherbuin facilitated the six brain scans that Harvey undertook throughout her year-long project and documentary called My Year of Living Mindfully.
“Usually we would take scans over several years, but in Shannon’s documentary we tried to emulate this on a shorter time scale,” says Professor Cherbuin.
“We were particularly interested in the hippocampus because it is known to be quite sensitive to environmental factors and ageing processes. It is also one of the brain regions affected most in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”
So, did Harvey’s year of living mindfully physically change her brain?
“We cannot say this for sure, but we observed less shrinkage in specific regions we were interested in than would be predicted in the broader population at a similar age.”
Being part of a documentary is a step outside of everyday academic life for Professor Cherbuin. When asked about this unusual experience Cherbuin said he really enjoyed the process, but was conscious of the responsibility it held.
“It is a big responsibility to represent science in a fair and objective way. Documentaries need to be interesting, surprising, fast-moving and obey quite different rules and timelines than the science I do.”
“They require showing how science would go about demonstrating effects without having the time nor the resources to do so. Having said that, I was surprised that given these constraints we did observe trends that were consistent with what the available literature would predict.”
Professor Cherbuin certainly sold me with the science, I think I’ll give meditation a go.