A recent research study shows that practicing Taiji can increase the brain size and results in improvements in several cognitive tests that may suggest reducing the probability of getting Alzheimer Disease or delaying its onset.
Research Methodology: A very meaningful and exciting paper “Tai Chi Increases Brain Size and Benefits Cognition in Randomized Controlled Trial of Chinese Elderly” was published in the June 19, 2012 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. [1-2] This research involved three institutions: University of South Florida, Fudan University in Shanghai, and the University of California at Davis. This study was an 8-month randomized controlled trial of 120 non-demented, senior (60-79) Chinese citizens from Shanghai,. The 120 people were divided into four groups:
- Taiji Group: Three sessions per week; each session consists of 20 minutes of warm-up exercises, 20 minutes of Taiji practice, and 10 minutes of cool-down exercises
- Walking Group: Three sessions per week; each session consists of 10 minutes of warm-up stretching, 30 minutes of brisk walking, and 10 minutes of cool-down exercises
- Social Interaction Group: Three sessions per week; each session consists of one-hour discussion on topics chosen by the participants
- No Interaction Group: Got phone calls four times during the 40 weeks from a study coordinator
Two MRIs were obtained for each participant, one before the study and one after the 40-week study. A neuropsychological battery of tests was administered at the start of the study, at 20 weeks, and at 40 weeks.
- Brain size: No Interaction Group’s brain size shrank. Walking Group’s brain size shrank as well, but not as much. Social Interaction Group brain size grew, but the growth was not as much as the Taiji Group’s growth
- Mattis Dementia Rating Scale (which is designed to measure and track mental status in adults with cognitive health): No Intervention Group and the Walking Group had no change in this scale. The Social Interaction Group had some improvement, and the Taiji Group had a significant improvement
- Trail-making tests (neuropsychological tests of visual attention and task switching, which can provide information about the speeds of visual search, scanning and processing, mental flexibility, as well as executive functioning. It is used to detect several cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia): No Interaction Group took more time to complete the task. Both Social Interaction Group and Walking Group had no change in time. The Taij Group became “sharper” and used less time.
The above results show that the Taiji Group had the best results in all three tests. The brain size grew the most; the Mattis Dementia Rating Scale improved the most, and the Trail-making tests showed a faster response time. Actually, these results are not surprising because of the commonly accepted axiom “if you don’t use it, you will lose it.”
- The No Interaction Group did not use the physical body or the mental body. So this group had the worst results.
- The Walking Group used the physical body, but did not use the mental body. So this group’s results either got slightly worse or no change.
- The Social Interaction Group did not use the physical body, but did use the mental body. So this group’s brain size and cognitive ability showed some improvement.
- The Taiji Group is the only group that used both the physical body and the mental body. This is because in doing Taiji, the mind is not empty, but the mind should be visualizing the form or the form’s martial applications, and the mind should be leading the form. So this group’s brain size, cognitive health, and processing speed all improved.
In addition to the above mentioned tests, the Taiji Group also registered improvements in other evaluations, including the Auditory Verbal Learning Test, the Verbal Fluency Test, the Initiation Score, Attention Score and Memory Score.
Although not commonly known and may not be always taught, the mind is very much involved in practicing Taiji. It is because of this active involvement of the mind that practicing Taiji may be able to reduce the probability of getting Alzheimer’s Disease or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.
 James A. Mortimer, Ding Ding, Amy R. Borenstein, Charles DeCarli, Qihao Guo, Yougui Wu, Qianhua Zhao, Shugang Chu. Changes in Brain Volume and Cognition in a Randomized Trial of Exercise and Social Interaction in a Community-Based Sample of Non-Demented Chinese Elders, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 2012; 30 (4), published by IOS Press: http://www.j-alz.com/press/2012/20120619.html.
 Violet Li, “Tai Chi increases brain size and potentially delays the onset of the Alzheimer,” August 16, 2012: http://www.examiner.com/article/tai-chi-increases-brain-size-and-potentially-delays-the-onset-of-the-alzheimer-s.