27 OCTOBER 2017 • VOL 358 ISSUE 6362 461 SCIENCE sciencemag.org
Meditation and yoga associated with changes in brain
Brain researchers have detected improvements in cognition and
emotional well-being associated with meditation and yoga, as well as
differences in how meditation and prayer affect the brains of those
who believe in God and those who do not.
At a 28 September Neuroscience & Society event cosponsored by
AAAS and the Dana Foundation, neuroscientist Sara Lazar said that
not only were the brain images in a study of people who meditated
different from those who did not, other research showed that certain
changes in performance such as improved scores on the Graduate
Record Exam (GRE) occurred in controlled experiments involving
“This suggests neuroplasticity to me,” said Lazar, associate
researcher in the psychiatry department at Massachusetts General
Hospital and an assistant professor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, “the ability of your brain to change, to grow and adapt” in
correlation with meditation.
AAAS and the Dana Foundation have collaborated on the Neuroscience & Society lecture series since 2012, with 20 events so far
reaching 3400 attendees. The purpose of the series is to provide
a public forum for experts to share the latest advances in brain
research and what they might mean for individuals and society.
In another presentation at the event, Chris Streeter, associate
professor of psychology and neurology at Boston University School
of Medicine, reported that the brain chemical GABA, a neurotransmitter associated with control of anxiety, peaked in experienced yoga
practitioners after they executed 60 minutes of postures.
“That was the first time people could say there was a change in
brain chemistry associated with yoga,” Streeter said.
In order to test whether yoga improved mood and lessened anxiety
more than other physical exercise, study subjects were tested before
and after a 12-week intervention in which they did yoga or walked. The
activities were metabolically matched to involve the same amount of
The yoga group consistently felt better, according to various markers of mood and anxiety, Streeter said. An hour after the yoga, acute
changes—revitalization, tranquillity, positivity, and increases in GABA
In depressed patients, even those already on antidepressants,
yoga was associated with improved sleep, increased positivity, and
decreased suicidal ideation (although none of the participants had
shown intent to commit suicide). All the measurements indicating
mood began “moving in the right direction,” Streeter said.
In contexts involving meditation and prayer, brain scans show
differences in how the brain reacts depending on whether a subject
believes in God, said Andrew Newberg, director of research at the
Marcus Institute of Integrative Health and a physician at Thomas
Jefferson University Hospital.
According to one of Newberg’s studies, when nuns contemplated
God, activation was detected in images of the prefrontal cortex, the
center of cognitive control, but there was no such activation in the
brains of atheists.
Newberg also discussed brain chemistry changes associated with
retreat experiences involving prayer, meditation, and silence. Tests
from before and after the retreat experience showed decreases in
dopamine and serotonin transporter levels, which would allow the
neurotransmitter chemicals to be stored in the brain for later use.
Finishing his presentation, Newberg said the work of all three
researchers could be seen as interconnected.
“All of this work is coalescing and helping us to understand the
overall nature of these experiences,” he said.
Neuroscientists describe improvements in cognition and mood at AAAS event
By Michaela Jarvis
AAAS NEWS & NOTES
Studies of meditation and
yoga report changes in brain
activation and chemistry.