According to a study conducted by UCLA Health, Kundalini yoga, a type of yoga that involves breathing exercises, meditation, and mental visualization, showed potential benefits for older women with risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and concerns about memory decline. Using a specialized MRI technique that measures brain activity in different regions, researchers at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior found that Kundalini yoga increased connectivity in a brain area that can be affected by stress and is associated with memory decline.
The study compared the effects of Kundalini yoga to a gold-standard memory enhancement training (MET) on connectivity in subregions of the hippocampus, a critical brain area for learning and memory. The study included 22 participants who had experienced memory decline in the past year and had one or more cardiovascular risk factors, which can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Kundalini yoga training appears to better target stress-related hippocampal connectivity, whereas MET may better target sensory-integration subregions of the hippocampus, supporting better memory reliability,” stated Lavretsky, director of the Late-Life Mood, Stress, and Wellness Research Program.
“The key takeaway is that this study adds to the literature supporting the benefits of yoga for brain health, especially for women who have greater perceived stress and subjective memory impairment,” she stated, adding, “This gentle form of yoga, which focuses more on breathing and mental engagement than on movement, like other forms of yoga, is ideal for older adults who may have some physical limitations.”
Both the yoga and MET groups underwent 60-minute weekly training sessions for 12 weeks, along with daily practice sessions. The Kundalini yoga training was supplemented with at-home practice of another form of yoga called Kirtan Kriya (KK). These types of yoga engage multiple senses simultaneously and involve chanting, which previous studies suggest may improve respiratory, cardiovascular, and autonomic nervous system functions.
Previous research by Dr. Helen Lavretsky and her team showed that Kundalini and Kirtan Kriya yoga had positive effects on depression, resilience, and executive functioning in older adults with mild cognitive impairment. Additionally, yoga was found to have a more robust neuroprotective effect on right hippocampal volume, which could suggest improved memory function, compared to MET in older women with subjective memory decline and cardiovascular risk factors.
Based on their findings, the yoga “training may better target hippocampal subregion connectivity impacted by stress, which may aid in processing information, including facial information, into memory,” the authors stated, adding, “the observed greater increased connectivity between anterior and posterior hippocampal subregions with KY+KK training than with MET may suggest superior long-term neuroprotective benefits in terms of vulnerable hippocampal connections critical to episodic memory with KY+KK training.”
In the current study, functional MRI was used to assess the resting-state connectivity of the hippocampus, which allowed researchers to evaluate specific subregions of the hippocampus and compare the effects of yoga and memory training. The results indicated that MET may be more effective than Kundalini yoga and Kirtan Kriya yoga in enhancing the hippocampal sensory integration necessary for memory processes.
While the study suggests that these forms of yoga may be particularly beneficial for women experiencing stress and with additional risk factors for Alzheimer‘s disease, the researchers emphasize the need for future large-scale studies with placebo groups or control arms to better understand the potential benefits of both yoga and MET on hippocampal connectivity and memory.
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