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Very little is currently known about the cerebral characteristics that underlie the complex processes of meditation as only a limited number of studies have addressed this topic. Research exploring structural connectivity in meditation practitioners is particularly rare. We thus acquired diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) data of high angular and spatial resolution and used atlas-based tract mapping methods to investigate white matter fiber characteristics in a well-matched sample of long-term meditators and controls (n=54). A broad field mapping approach estimated the fractional anisotropy (FA) for twenty different fiber tracts (i.e., nine tracts in each hemisphere and two inter-hemispheric tracts) that were subsequently used as dependent measures. Results showed pronounced structural connectivity in meditators compared to controls throughout the entire brain within major projection pathways, commissural pathways, and association pathways. The largest group differences were observed within the corticospinal tract, the temporal component of the superior longitudinal fasciculus, and the uncinate fasciculus. While cross-sectional studies represent a good starting point for elucidating possible links between meditation and white matter fiber characteristics, longitudinal studies will be necessary to determine the relative contribution of nature and nurture to enhanced structural connectivity in long-term meditators.
Although the systematic study of meditation is still in its infancy, research has provided evidence for meditation-induced improvements in psychological and physiological well-being. Moreover, meditation practice has been shown not only to benefit higher-order cognitive functions but also to alter brain activity. Nevertheless, little is known about possible links to brain structure. Using high-resolution MRI data of 44 subjects, we set out to examine the underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation with different regional specificity (i.e., global, regional, and local). For this purpose, we applied voxel-based morphometry in association with a recently validated automated parcellation approach. We detected significantly larger gray matter volumes in meditators in the right orbito-frontal cortex (as well as in the right thalamus and left inferior temporal gyrus when co-varying for age and/or lowering applied statistical thresholds). In addition, meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus. Both orbito-frontal and hippocampal regions have been implicated in emotional regulation and response control. Thus, larger volumes in these regions might account for meditators' singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior. We further suggest that these regional alterations in brain structures constitute part of the underlying neurological correlate of long-term meditation independent of a specific style and practice. Future longitudinal analyses are necessary to establish the presence and direction of a causal link between meditation practice and brain anatomy.