Brain scans of meditation

Mindfulness and Meditation: Exploring the Neurobiological Impact of Meditation on Stress, Health, and Longevity

Meditation, long valued for its calming effects, has gained recognition as an influential tool for stress reduction and enhancing mental well-being. Recent research has begun to unveil its extensive neurological benefits, offering new insights into its effects on cognitive function and brain physiology. What specific neurological changes does meditation induce, and how do these contribute to enhanced longevity and cognitive function? In this week's Research Review, Shreshtha Jolly from the Johns Hopkins Department of Molecular Biology delves into these significant neurological processes. Her analysis explores how meditation optimizes neurotransmitter signaling and reduces inflammation, both vital for maintaining mental and physical health. Furthermore, she explores the role of mindfulness and meditation in stimulating neurogenesis and fostering the growth of neural networks in pivotal brain regions—a process of critical significance for cognitive health, particularly in the context of aging. Lastly, she examines meditation's influence on cortisol levels and the adrenal system.

Cognitive Health

Neurological Health


18 mins

By: Shreshtha Jolly, Shriya Bakhshi

In today's rapidly evolving and high-pressure society, stress has become a pervasive and often overwhelming aspect of daily life. This relentless exposure to stress exerts significant impacts on both our physical and mental health, potentially accelerating the aging process and precipitating a range of health complications.

However, recent research has highlighted the efficacy of mindfulness and meditation as potent tools in countering stress and enhancing overall health. This research review article embarks on a detailed examination from a neurobiological perspective, aiming to unravel the complex interplay between stress reduction techniques, particularly mindfulness and meditation, and their substantial effects on the aging process and health. A significant emphasis is placed on analyzing the underlying neurobiological mechanisms, elucidating how meditation alters the brain's physiology. This comprehensive analysis aims to shed light on these transformative processes, providing insights into the ways meditation practices can be leveraged to cultivate improved health and well-being in our fast-paced world.

Understanding Mindfulness and Meditation

For eons, meditation has been an ancient art steeped in the traditions of the East. It is a practice that involves training the mind to achieve a state of focused attention, relaxation, and heightened awareness. It often includes techniques such as concentration or guided imagery to promote mental clarity and emotional well-being. Meditation represents a captivating journey, inviting individuals to delve into their consciousness's depths and discover their inner peace [1].

What Is the Relationship Between Mindfulness and Meditation?

Think of mindfulness as a specific type of meditation, like a branch on the tree of meditative practices. Meditation, in general, covers a wide range of techniques aimed at calming the mind and enhancing well-being. Mindfulness is one technique that focuses specifically on staying present and aware of the current moment without passing judgment. Initially rooted in Buddhist psychology, the term "mindfulness" derives from the Sanskrit word "Smṛti" meaning "that which is remembered" [2]. It involves three crucial aspects:

  • Awareness of the present moment: Being fully engaged and focused on the current moment without getting caught up in past or future thoughts.

  • Non-judgmental observation: Observing thoughts, feelings, and sensations without labeling them as good or bad, right or wrong.

  • Acceptance and openness: Embracing experiences as they are, allowing them to unfold without resistance or attachment.

While all mindfulness practices are a form of meditation, not all meditative practices are necessarily mindfulness-based. They are like close cousins in the world of mental well-being.

Types of Meditation

Now, there exist various types of meditation. Each of these provides unique paths toward mental well-being [2]:

  • Transcendental Meditation: This form of meditation encourages people to focus their thoughts inward. By exploring more profound levels of thinking, one can achieve a peaceful state of mind, moving beyond active ideas and connecting with a deep source of awareness. Qualified teachers often guide individuals in this technique, leading individuals to remain alert yet free from the constraints of conscious thinking, achieving a unique balance of calmness and awareness.

  • Vipassana Meditation: Deeply rooted in Buddhist traditions, this form of meditation centers on perceiving reality in its proper form. It enables one to experience peace and harmony by purifying the mind. It involves sitting upright in a quiet, comfortable space, focusing on natural breathing, directing attention to different body parts, being aware of sensations with equanimity, and returning focus to breathing and sensations when the mind wanders. When practiced appropriately with full attention, Vipassana meditation can help one achieve the highest possible spiritual goal of complete liberation from mental defilements.

  • Yoga Meditation: In this form of meditation, the goal is to accomplish a harmonious balance between physical and mental well being. One engages in various postures while keeping one's eyes closed and concentrating on specific stimuli like a word, picture, or sound.

  • The Relaxation Response: Coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School cardiologist, the relaxation response is a meditative technique that involves a set of bodily changes to achieve a state of physiological and psychological deep rest to counteract stress. It consists of practicing deep breathing, focusing on a repetitive word, phrase, or sound to clear the mind of intrusive thoughts, adopting a passive attitude towards intrusive thoughts, and choosing a quiet, comfortable environment to facilitate relaxation.

These diverse meditation techniques collectively cater to individual preferences, providing avenues for enhanced mindfulness and relaxation and cultivating a balanced connection between the mind and body. Choosing a practice that resonates with personal goals and preferences allows individuals to journey toward mental well-being.

What Does Meditation Do the Brain?

Meditation exerts profound and multifaceted effects on the human brain. At the core of its impact lies a fascinating cascade of biological changes, primarily orchestrated through intricate neurotransmitter signaling, modulation of adrenal output, and the stimulation of neurogenesis. Each of these elements plays a crucial role in how meditation reshapes and optimizes our brain's functioning

Neurobiology of Mindfulness and Meditation: Neurotransmitter Release

Meditative practices can induce neurobiological changes with overlying well-being and overall health benefits. One significant aspect of meditation is its impact on neurotransmitter release [3].

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that facilitate communication between neurons, or cells, in the brain. They function like river channels, efficiently delivering goods (in this case, electrical signals) from one port (one neuron) to another (a second neuron) [4].

Studies have shown that meditation can increase the release of neurotransmitters like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), dopamine, and serotonin, which are associated with reduced stress, positive emotions, and well-being.

Meditation’s Effect on GABA

GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps reduce anxiety and stress levels [5]. You can think of the function of GABA as a traffic cop in a bustling city. Like the cop directs traffic flow to avoid congestion, GABA directs neural networks in the brain to prevent overstimulation and anxiety [5]. 

Interestingly, studies have consistently shown a positive correlation between meditative practices, GABA release, and calmness. In a research study, scientists utilized Positron Emission Tomography (PET), a brain imaging technology, to examine the cerebral blood flow (rCBF) of Tibetan Buddhist meditators and a control group while they engaged in complex cognitive tasks. [6] In simple terms, rCBF refers to the amount of blood that flows to different parts or regions of the brain.

When a particular area has a high rCBF, it suggests that the brain cells are working hard and need high levels of oxygen and nutrients from the blood. This measurement helps scientists understand which brain parts are more active during different tasks or activities. [7]

In the study, the meditators had significantly higher rCBF in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) compared to the control group. The PFC is a brain region primarily involved in executive functions like decision-making and problem-solving. When the PFC gets activated, it activates the reticular nucleus of the thalamus (RE). The RE is a brain region that contains a pool of neurons that release GABA.

Hence, by increasing blood flow to the PFC, meditation stimulates the PFC, which stimulates the RE to release GABA release, otherwise tied to calmness and reduced anxiety.

Meditation’s Effect on Serotonin

In addition to GABA, serotonin is another neurotransmitter whose release positively correlates with meditative practices. Serotonin release in the brain is linked to positive emotions and happiness. You can think of it as a postal worker spreading positive news from house to house. When sufficient serotonin is released, excitatory signals are delivered across neural networks to create a happy and serene neighborhood in the brain. However, when serotonin levels drop, excitatory signals are not delivered as efficiently, possibly contributing to feelings of sadness and depression. [8]

Fortunately, studies have confirmed heightened release of the neurotransmitter and emotions of positive well-being in individuals who routinely engage in mindfulness and meditation practices.

In one such study, urine samples were taken from 11 subjects who were routine meditators. These individuals performed meditation twice daily for 20 minutes in the morning and evening for an average of 29 months. Urine samples were also taken from matched controls who did not engage in any stress-reduction techniques.

Interestingly, higher serotonin levels were detected in the urinary samples of the meditators both before and after the meditative sessions. This suggests that the stress reduction technique exerts long-lasting effects on our bodies, with serotonin release transcending beyond periods immediately post-practice.

Meditation’s Effect on Norepinephrine

Another neurotransmitter whose release is influenced by mindfulness and meditation is norepinephrine (NE). This is another neurotransmitter involved in anxiety.

In the brain, the concentration of NE is believed to be the highest in a specific region known as the locus coeruleus. Increased activity and NE release in the area is tied to heightened anxiety.

Apart from the brain, NE is released by neurons that branch out to our skin. When released, they act on immune cells and blood vessels to trigger inflammation in the skin. Hence, heightened release of NE is problematic as it can contribute to both elevated anxiety levels and inflammation.

Mindfulness and meditation have the power to decrease NE release, thus regulating our anxiety and inflammatory levels. [9

In an innovative study, researchers evaluated the potential of mindfulness intervention in reducing psychological stress and inflammation. Subjects were randomly assigned to participate in either an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program or a similar non-mindfulness-based stress reduction program known as the Health Enhancement Program (HEP).

Psychological stress was also induced in all subjects by having them participate in the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). [10] Developed by psychologists Thomas Kirschbaum, Clemens Kudielka, and Dirk Hellhammer in 1993, TSST is often implemented in research studies to induce stress in a laboratory setting.

The test includes a preparation and social evaluation stage. During the preparation stage, participants are informed that they will deliver a speech and perform mental arithmetic tasks in front of a panel of judges.

For the speech tasks, participants are typically given a few minutes to prepare a lecture on a given topic. The speech is generally about a job application or other challenging scenario. Following the speech, participants are asked to perform a mental arithmetic task. This task is often designed to be difficult and induce stress.

Throughout both tasks, participants are observed by judges who maintain a neutral and unresponsive demeanor. The social evaluation aspect adds to the stress, as individuals know they are being judged. [11

In addition to psychological stress, inflammation was also experimentally induced via topical application of capsaicin cream (a cream that, when applied to the skin, causes a warming or burning sensation). Physiological responses both before and after MSBR and HEP training were measured.

The results revealed that both programs led to comparable reductions in self-reported distress. However, MBSR training was also associated with significantly reduced inflammatory response. It accomplished this by decreasing the release of NE by neurons innervating the skin. The study suggests that mindfulness-based interventions may benefit our health through their dual regulation of anxiety and inflammation.

Mindfulness and meditative practices collectively affect the release of GABA, dopamine, serotonin, and NE, promoting emotional balance and reducing stress and inflammatory responses. By increasing cRBF to the PFC, meditation stimulates the region, which enables the RE to release GABA and reduce anxiety. Serotonin, linked to positive emotions, shows heightened release in regular meditators, contributing to enduring positive well-being. Finally, mindfulness-based interventions offer dual regulation of both anxiety and inflammation by decreasing the release of NE in peripheral regions of the body.

Neurobiology of Mindfulness and Meditation: Neurogenesis

The effects of mindfulness and meditation also extend to neurogenesis—the process of birthing brand-new neurons in the brain. Think of meditation practices as a protein shake for our mental muscles. Just as consistent intake of recommended dietary protein fuels muscle growth and height during adolescence, faithful commitment to regular mindfulness and meditative practices catalyzes the development of neural networks in specific brain regions.

Intimately tied to learning, memory, and emotional regulation, these areas transform when trained with meditation. The growth enhances our thinking power and fortifies our overall brain health, acting as a formidable defense against neurodegeneration as we age.

In a longitudinal study, anatomical MRI images were obtained from participants before and after completing an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. The study focused on analyzing changes in neuronal density within specific predefined brain areas. These changes were then compared to those observed in a control group of individuals who did not participate in the MBSR program. This comparison aimed to assess the neurological impacts of the mindfulness training provided by the MBSR program.

Like a hard drive that stores your computer's memory, the hippocampus is your body's 'hard drive.' It is principally involved in keeping long-term memories and making them resistant to forgetting [12].

In the longitudinal study, a greater concentration of neurons was reported in the left hippocampal region in the MBSR group relative to the control group, suggesting that meditative practices stimulated neurogenesis in this area.

Broadening the scope to the entire brain, further analyses in this study also revealed greater neuron concentrations in the posterior cingulate cortex, temporoparietal junction, and cerebellum in the MBSR group when contrasted with the control group.

These results suggest that engaging in MBSR is linked to discernible alterations in neuron concentration within brain regions integral to processes such as learning and memory, emotion regulation, thinking, and perspective taking. [13]

Adding to this encouraging information, it's noteworthy that one does not need to be a seasoned meditator with years of practice to experience these benefits. The mentioned study involved sixteen individuals new to meditation who had engaged in the MBSR program for eight weeks. This finding suggests that even beginners can reap significant benefits from mindfulness practices.

However, it's important to note that this does not imply that these techniques should be practiced only sporadically. In fact, the longer and more consistently one commits to these practices, the more substantial and enduring the benefits are likely to be.

One study involving the collection of anatomical MRI scans from 50 meditators who ranged in their years of meditative experience from 4 to 46 years provides further insight into the impact of meditative practices [14]. The study also included a comparison group of 50 people who did not engage in meditation or similar stress-reduction practices to provide a comprehensive analysis. These individuals served as matched controls, meaning they were similar in key demographic and health characteristics to the meditators, but without the meditation experience.

The study's key finding was a significant difference in the volume of gray matter in the left hippocampus. The meditators showed considerably larger volumes in this region compared to the controls. Moreover, the study found that these increased volumes in the meditators' left hippocampus were positively correlated with the years of meditative practice. This means that more extended experience in meditation was associated with greater gray matter volume in this brain area.

Our brain and spinal cord are composed of two distinct types of tissue, commonly known as 'gray' and 'white' matter. The gray matter is primarily located on the brain's outer surface and involves perception, processing, and decision-making. The white matter, on the other hand, is located deeper within the brain and forms the majority of the brain's interior. It primarily transmits electrical signals from one brain region to the other.

A greater volume of gray matter in the left hippocampal region suggests greater neurogenesis activity in meditators. In a subsequent study performed by the same group, the researchers also found fewer tendencies to age-related degeneration in the left hippocampal gray matter of mediators followed over time.

Collectively, mindfulness and meditation contribute to neurogenesis involving the birth of neurons in the brain. Regular practice catalyzes the growth of neural networks in crucial brain regions tied to learning, memory, and emotional regulation. This growth enhances cognitive abilities and acts as a formidable defense against age-related neurodegeneration.

Neurobiology of Mindfulness and Meditation: Cortisol Release

Stress is a significant contributor to various health problems, including cardiovascular disease, depression, immune dysfunction, and accelerated aging.

Mindfulness and meditation have been shown to reduce stress by regulating the release of cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone. You can think of cortisol as a marker of your stress levels. When you experience stress, such as while presenting a paper to a panel of judges or being chased by an angry dog, certain glands, known as the adrenal glands in your body, release cortisol.

When the period of stress is small, the tag or cortisol gets removed. However, when stress exposure is prolonged, high cortisol levels are released and not cleared. These can have detrimental effects on your body. Research suggests that mindfulness practices can lower cortisol levels, promoting relaxation and reducing stress's negative impact on overall health.

In one study, researchers examined the effects of long-term and short-term meditation on cortisol levels and sleep. The study involved 20 participants, of whom nine had engaged in meditative practices for an average of 264 months, and 11 were novices. The novice participants went through the conventional 8-week MBSR program. Measurements of cortisol were taken both before and after engaging in the program. Cortisol measurements were also taken first in the morning for all participants for an average of 4 months. Apart from cortisol, effects on sleep were also evaluated by making participants answer self-reported questionnaires.

Overall, the study observed that experienced meditators demonstrated a decrease in morning cortisol levels correlating with the length of their meditation experience. Additionally, beginners who participated in the MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) program also showed a decrease in morning cortisol levels upon completion. Further, these novice participants reported significant improvements in their sleep patterns.

The study's findings indicate a negative correlation between the duration of meditation practice and cortisol levels. This means that as individuals commit to and extend their meditation practice over time, there is an associated reduction in the release of cortisol, a hormone commonly linked to stress. Furthermore, the study highlights that long-term meditation affects cortisol levels and positively influences sleep patterns, suggesting a broader range of benefits from sustained meditation practice.

A similar pattern of findings has also been found in other studies. In one study, participants were asked to take part in a meditation retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. The practices focused on developing attentional skills, where attention was directed to the breath and immediate thoughts. Participants also cultivated positive mental states such as kindness, compassion, empathic joy, and equanimity.

The group convened twice daily for 1-hour sessions, participating in guided meditations and dialogue. However, most of the day was dedicated to solitary meditation, typically practiced in 20–30 minute increments. In the middle of the 3-month retreat, participants were also encouraged to observe a silence lasting approximately four weeks. Measurements of cortisol and self-reports of mindfulness were taken near the beginning and end of the 3-month retreat.

The researchers discovered a negative correlation between mindfulness and cortisol levels. Essentially, they found that an increase in mindfulness, from before to after practicing mindfulness techniques, was associated with a corresponding decrease in cortisol levels over the same period. This means that the more substantial the improvement in mindfulness, the greater the reduction in cortisol levels observed.

These findings indicate that mindfulness practices hold significant potential as a non-pharmacological intervention for reducing cortisol levels and, consequently, stress levels in the body. Engaging in mindfulness practices can effectively manage stress and promote overall well-being.

Collectively, the studies emphasize the pivotal role of mindfulness and meditation in stress reduction by specifically targeting cortisol levels. Notably, one doesn't need extensive meditative expertise to witness physiological benefits. The key lies in sustained commitment to the practice, as it directly correlates with the extent of benefits, including a notable decrease in cortisol levels and improvements in sleep outcomes.


This review has illuminated mindfulness and meditation's multifaceted impact on aging and overall health. By delving into the neural mechanisms and neurobiological processes underpinning these practices, we gain a deeper appreciation of their role in reducing stress and enhancing well-being. The interplay of neurotransmitter release, neurogenesis, synaptic plasticity, and cortisol regulation forms the cornerstone of the beneficial effects observed through mindfulness and meditation.

Significantly, these practices emerge as tools for immediate stress relief and potent allies in combating the long-term effects of aging on the brain. They offer a promising non-pharmacological approach to safeguarding against neurodegenerative diseases and mitigating the myriad health issues associated with chronic stress.

Moreover, the accessibility of mindfulness and meditation means that these benefits are not confined to those with extensive experience in meditative practices. Even novices can tap into these advantages, with the magnitude of the benefits often directly correlated to the duration and consistency of training. These findings underscore the potential of mindfulness and meditation as practical, everyday techniques that can significantly improve our lives.

In essence, whether it's through dedicated meditation sessions or incorporating mindfulness into daily routines, these practices represent a key to unlocking a healthier, more balanced, and resilient state of being. As we navigate the complexities of modern life, taking a moment to breathe and engage with the power of mindfulness and meditation can be a transformative step towards enhanced health and longevity.


  • Research has shown that mindfulness and meditation can combat stress and promote health and longevity by working at the biological level, influencing neurological and hormonal processes.

  • Neurotransmitter Release During Meditation: Studies have shown that meditation increases neurotransmitters like GABA, dopamine, and serotonin, which are linked to reduced stress and enhanced well-being. For example, a study using PET scans revealed higher cerebral blood flow in the prefrontal cortex of meditators, indicating increased GABA release.

  • Neurogenesis Stimulated by Meditation: Meditation practices have been found to promote neurogenesis (the creation of new brain cells), particularly in the hippocampus where our memories are stored.

  • An MRI-based study showed increased cell density in the left hippocampal region after an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, suggesting neurogenesis and enhanced cognitive functions.

  • Cortisol Regulation Through Mindfulness Practices: Research indicates that mindfulness and meditation can lower cortisol levels, the stress hormone.

  • A study reported decreased morning cortisol levels in long-term meditators and improvements in sleep patterns for beginners who completed an MBSR program.

  • Mindfulness and meditation practices serve as a pivotal strategy in reducing stress, enhancing brain health, and potentially guarding against neurodegenerative diseases, offering benefits to both novices and seasoned practitioners alike.


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