Daily Meditation May Help Protect the Brain From Aging, Study of Buddhist Monk's Brain Suggests

Scientists have spent 14 years scanning the brain of a buddhist monk. Their findings suggest daily meditation could help protect the brain from aging.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche was born in Nubri, a small village close to the Nepal-Tibet border, in 1975, making him 41 years old. But according to a study published in the journal Neurocase, his apparent brain age is almost a decade younger than his actual age. The study's authors suggest decades of regular meditation could explain the discrepancy.

Researchers from University of Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard Medical School scanned Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's brain four times over 14 years—in 2002 when he was 27 years old; 2005 when he was 30; 2007 when he was 32; and 2016 when he was 41.

The results were compared with scans from 105 adults aged 25 to 66, taken between 2010 and 2011, using artificial intelligence taught to estimate a person's age based on the structure of their gray matter.

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While the brain age of the control group aligned closely to their calendar age, that of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche did not. The AI system guessed his age was 33—eight years younger than his calendar age.

The authors hypothesize Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's comparatively young brain age could be the result of decades of meditation.

This is backed up by previous studies that suggest meditation could slow the wearing down of telomeres—shield-like structures that protect the tips of chromosomes from deterioration—and the loss of gray matter, both of which contribute to aging.

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However, the study published in Neurocase is based on observations and correlations, and does not confirm a cause and effect. There may be several other factors (such as genetics) entirely unrelated to meditation that could be a factor here.

To complicate the matter further, the study suggests the effect of meditation may not be as simple as slowing the aging process because Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's brain also appeared to age faster than the control group. The AI system guessed a 27-year-old Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche was 30. The scan taken when he was 30 came back as 28 and the one taken when he was 32 came back as 32.

The authors note limitations with their study and point out the framework of the experiment is not equipped to confirm whether or not there is a direct relationship between Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's brain age and meditation practice.

Furthermore, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's brain scans were compared to those of Americans, who are likely to have a very different lifestyle and come from a very different environment to that of a buddhist monk.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche left home aged nine to join his father Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, a renowned meditation master, at a hermitage near Kathmandu valley. There he learned some of the most advanced practices of Tibetan Buddhism before moving to the Sherab Ling Monastery in Northern India.

He was formally enthroned as the seventh incarnation of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche when he was 12. By 17, he was guiding senior monks and nuns through complex meditation practicess—and has continued to teach and meditate ever since.

The authors suggest a "more rigorously matched" control group of Tibetans who do not meditate may provide more insight into the impact of meditation on brain aging.

From lowering stress levels to promoting positive emotions, there have been various arguments put forward for meditation's apparently youth-boosting properties. While scientists may not fully understand the benefits and limits of meditation, more and more of us appear to be turning to the practice. According to a study published in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of people who said they meditated increased from 4.1 percent in 2012 to 14.2 percent in 2017.

Tibetan Buddhist monk debates Buddhist related issues
A Tibetan Buddhist monk in the courtyard of the Sera Monastery on August 20, 2012 in Lhasa, China's Tibet. A new study suggests meditation practiced by Tibetan Buddhist monks could protect the brain from aging. Hong Wu/Getty
Daily Meditation May Help Protect the Brain From Aging, Study of Buddhist Monk's Brain Suggests | Tech & Science