The 15 participants, ages 52 to 77, all had memory problems at the start, says Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, one of the researchers and the medical director of the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation in Tucson, Ariz.
For eight weeks, the participants engaged in a meditation at home known as Kirtan Kriya, which originated from the Kundalini yoga tradition.
"It only takes 12 minutes [a day,] it's easy to learn, it doesn't cost anything, and it has no side effects," Khalsa tells WebMD. The technique, he says, "reverses memory loss in people with memory problems."
The study findings are published online in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.
The participants learned the Kirtan Kriya technique. It involves the repetition of four sounds -- SA, TA, NA, MA. While saying the sounds, the person meditating also touches their thumb to their index finger, and middle, fourth, and fifth fingers. They perform it out loud for two minutes, in a whisper for two minutes, in silence for four minutes, a whisper for two more minutes, and out loud for two minutes.
The participants were asked to do the meditation each day for eight weeks and were sent home with a meditation CD.
A comparison group of five people with memory loss got the same imaging tests and were asked to listen to two Mozart violin concertos each day for eight weeks for the same 12 minutes a day.
Improvements in Memory
Participants were asked to keep daily logs and came back after eight weeks for repeat testing and scans.
At the study start, of the 15 in the meditation group, seven had mild age-associated memory impairment, five had mild cognitive impairment, a worse problem, and three had moderate impairment of memory with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. One who had Alzheimer's was not included in the final analysis because of inability to do the meditation at the follow-up.
Of the five in the music group, two had mild cognitive impairment and three had age-associated memory impairment.
Among the findings:
- Cerebral blood flow was increased in the meditating group in the frontal lobe and parietal lobes, both areas involved in retrieving memories.
- Cerebral blood flow increases occurred in different areas of the brain in the music group, but not significantly.
- The meditation group improved performance on a test that measures cognition by asking people to name as many animals as they can in one minute.
- The meditation group also improved on three other tests that gauge general memory, attention, and cognition.
- The music group didn't have significant improvement in cognition.
Based on the results, Khalsa hopes the practice may help keep some people's mild memory problems from progressing to more severe problems, but acknowledges that once memory becomes too impaired, meditation may not be possible for the person to do.
Why does it seem to help? ''I use the analogy of going to the gym and lifting weights for eight weeks," Khalsa says. "You're definitely stronger. I think we see this in the brain. It's like training the brain. You are somehow improving the chemical milieu of the brain. Blood flow improves the anatomy of the brain and it functions better," he says.
A Memory Expert's View
A memory expert, Gary W. Small, MD, director of the Memory & Aging Research Center at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, had some caveats about the study.
''It's a small study," he tells WebMD. And it needs replication, as do all medical studies.
Even so, Small says, the results are plausible. "Meditation might help them focus more," he says of those with memory problems. ''And a big reason people don't remember things is that they are not paying attention."
Relaxation may play a role, too, he says, as some studies show stress can lead to brain atrophy, he says.
The speed of the effect of the meditation is not surprising to Small. In researching his last book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, which examines the effect of technology on the brain, Small found that exposing older people to technology by having them search the Internet an hour a day changed their brain activity in one week. He found an increase in frontal lobe activity, in areas that control short-term memory and decision making, he tells WebMD.