Can meditation help reverse grey-matter atrophy and neurodegeneration?

Text that reads: Because our baby boom is bigger than our younger population, issues like this will become more and more prevalent.

What if the practice of meditation could help to reverse the grey matter atrophy that plagues sufferers of Alzheimer’s and other incurable neurodegenerative diseases? It’s a vital question that led Kinesiology Program Head Dr. Leslie Auger and University of Guelph-Humber alumna Nicole Last down a years-long research investigation.

The result is their article, co-authored with former UofGH librarian Emily Tufts, “The Effects of Meditation on Grey Matter Atrophy and Neurodegeneration: A Systematic Review,” which was recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Grey matter in the brain is composed of cells that help us process information for movement, memory, speech, emotions and more. The seeds for the project were originally planted when Last was looking for a topic for her independent study in her fourth year at the University of Guelph-Humber.

“My thought process was if Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by grey matter atrophy and if meditation can counter act that, it was like a light bulb going off – could meditation be beneficial to the neurodegenerative population?” Last said.

“This is a combination of the student’s interests, my interests, and where the literature took us,” said Dr. Auger, who already had experience exploring the effect of mindfulness in cardiac rehabilitation. “Ultimately, it’s a new area of research, because the brain is so difficult and meditation is becoming so trendy now.”

Last submitted a paper on the subject as she was finishing her studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in 2015, and Dr. Auger saw potential in developing the idea further, so they began collaborating on going deeper with their research.

The biggest challenge, however, was the dearth of original studies that included MRI imaging to measure grey matter volume in meditators.

Ultimately, 13 studies were deemed eligible for review, and the paper does conclude that further research is essential. That said, the article by Last, Tufts and Dr. Auger does suggest based on preliminary evidence that meditation may offset grey matter atrophy, and that meditation has the potential to provide patients with with improvements in cognitive function and managing stress levels.

Certainly, the authors have found that the topic inspires broad interest.

“With these very prevalent diseases in a growing, aging population – because our baby boom is finally bigger than our young population – this is going to be more and more prevalent,” said Dr. Auger. “What can we do, and what can we do without drugs?”

Last is now enrolled in graduate school, attending McMaster University for rehabilitation sciences. Being published this early in her academic career is “super rare,” Last said, and it gave her a new confidence as she found herself sharing classrooms with other graduate students and PhD candidates.

“I feel lucky because other first-year master’s students have no research background whatsoever,” she said. “It did prepare me better than those other students. I can have more background knowledge going into the program on research articles in general, publications, how to submit and proper writing techniques.

“I was super lucky, and Leslie was a big part of that. She’s very supportive and obviously I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her.”

Learn more about Kinesiology at the University of Guelph-Humber.

Learn more about Research at the University of Guelph-Humber.