Can Taiji Reshape the Brain?

It is well known that practicing Taiji [1] has many health benefits, including lowering of blood pressure, increase in immunity to shingles, relief to osteoarthritis, lowering stress and pain reduction, improvement in the control of Type 2 diabetes, reducing probability of Alzheimer Disease, and general improvement to overall health [2].  Practicing Taiji also can help the elderly with depression [3], help people with Parkinson Disease [4], and provide psychological benefits [5].  These studies show that practicing Taiji can result in health and behavior changes at a macroscopic physical and emotional level of the Taiji practitioners.  Until recently, there has not been any study investigating the brain structural (neural) changes underlying the health and behavior changes associated with practicing Taiji.  This article reports the results of a recent research study that shows that practicing Taiji results in increased cortical thicknesses of the brain.

A group of scientists associated with several research centers in Beijing (e.g., Magnetic Resonance Imaging Research Center, Psychology Research Center, and Psychiatry Research Center)  published a paper “Can Taichi Reshape the Brain?  A Brain Morphometry Study” in April 2013 in the journal PLOS ONE, which is an open access peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science. [6]

In this study, they compared a group 22 experienced Taiji practitioners [age:  52 (plus or minus 6 years), 7 males, 14 (plus or minus 8) years of practicing Taiji] and a control group of 18 people [age:  54 (plus or minus 8) years, 8 males] who do not engage in physical, yoga, or meditation exercises.  The Taiji practitioners practice Taiji from 30 to 90 minutes per session of practice, with the majority having daily practice.  Other than this difference in exercises, the two groups are similar in characteristics, including with comparable education experience.

From analysis of MRI results, they found that there are statistically significant differences in the cortical thicknesses of various parts of the brain.  For example, these include:

  • the prefrontal cortex that governs planning complex cognitive behavior, decision making, and orchestration of thoughts and actions
  • the medial occipito-temporal sulcus that governs word recognition, face and body recognition, and processing of color information
  • the precentral gyrus that governs the main motor center functions
  • the superior temporal gyrus that governs sensation of sound, processing of speech, and perception of emotion.

Before the MRI sessions, the research team also had the participants completed an Attention Network Test (ANT), a test that measures different behavioral aspects of attention including alerting, orienting and executive attention (working memory related to performance of real-world cognitive tasks) based on the Attention Network theory [7].  They found that the Taiji group performed better in the ANT and there is close correlation between the ANT results and the larger cortical thicknesses of the Taiji group.

From earlier studies by others, we know that meditation, yoga and aerobic exercises can result in increased cortical thicknesses.  The current study found similar increased cortical thicknesses from practicing Taiji.  Since we know that in spite of Taiji in general being a soft, slow, and gentle exercise, it is an aerobic exercise.  Furthermore, Taiji is also called moving meditation, in the sense that the mind is also in a relaxed meditative mode involved in deep and relaxed breathing.  Therefore, practicing Taiji can give rise to similar increased cortical thicknesses as from practicing aerobic or meditation exercises should not be surprising at all.

The researchers also found that the amount of reshaping of the brain depends more on the intensity of the Taiji practice (i.e., frequency and duration of each practice session) than on the number of years that the experienced practitioner has practiced Taiji.  This has an important implication that you do not necessarily need to have practiced Taiji for a very large number of years before you can get perhaps almost similar kinds of health benefits as someone who has practiced Taiji for many, many years, as long as the intensity of the practice has been significant.

The results of this new research is very important, because it provides a deeper level of understanding of the physiological impacts on a human body from practicing Taiji.  However, the current study does not shed any light on the impacts on the cellular level, which future studies should be able to provide.  I want to end this article by pointing out that there is a possibility the differences in cortical thicknesses found in this study could be due to the fact that by chance there were differences on the cortical thicknesses of the people in the two groups, since the differences were not the result from the Taiji exercises during the duration of this study.

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[1]  Taiji is also spelled as Taichi or Tai Chi.  It is also known as Taijiquan, or Tai Chi Chuan, meaning the “Fist of Taiji” or “Fist of Tai Chi.”

[2]  See, e.g., “Health Benefits of Taiji”:  http://www.dontow.com/2010/01/health-benefits-of-taiji/, and “Why Taiji Is Beneficial to Health”:  http://www.dontow.com/2012/09/why-taiji-is-beneficial-to-health/.

[3]  See, e.g., “Taiji Helps Depression in the Elderly”:  http://www.dontow.com/2011/04/taiji-helps-depression-in-the-elderly/.

[4]  See, e.g., “Taiji and Parkinson Disease”:  http://www.dontow.com/2012/03/taiji-and-parkinson-disease/.

[5]  See, e.g., “Psychological Benefits of Taiji”: http://www.dontow.com/2013/03/psychological-health-benefits-of-taiji/.

[6]  Wei G-X, Xu T, Fan F-M, Dong H-M, Jiang L-L, et al.  (2013) Can Taichi Reshape the Brain? A Brain Morphometry Study.  PLoS ONE 8(4): e61038.   doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061038.  This open access peer-reviewed scientific journal article can be downloaded or printed at:  http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0061038.

[7]  Fan J, McCandliss BD, Sommer T, Raz A, Posner MI (2002)  Testing the efficiency and independence of attentional networks.  J Cogn Neurosci 14: 340–347.

 

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