A new path to cognitive health? Study sheds light on yoga’s unique impact on brain connectivity in women at risk for Alzheimer’s disease

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A recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease highlights the potential benefits of Kundalini yoga for older women at risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The research suggests yoga and memory training contribute to distinct patterns of connectivity changes in the brain.

Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition characterized by progressive cognitive decline and memory impairment. While some risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease are non-modifiable (like genetics and age), modifiable risk factors, particularly cardiovascular factors, are thought to contribute to its development. Cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol have been associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.

Yoga is recognized for its positive impacts on cardiovascular functioning. It has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve heart health, and enhance cardiorespiratory fitness. Given that modifiable cardiovascular risk factors are implicated in Alzheimer’s disease development, interventions that improve cardiovascular health could potentially have a positive impact on reducing the risk or delaying the onset of cognitive decline.

Kundalini yoga is a specific form of yoga that combines movement, meditation, mantra recitation, and mental visualization, with a strong emphasis on breathing techniques. Its comprehensive approach to physical movement, mental engagement, and relaxation makes it particularly suited for older adults.

Additionally, neuroimaging studies have suggested that yoga has neuroprotective effects on the brain. Specifically, yoga training and regular practice have been linked to positive changes in brain structures, such as the hippocampus. The hippocampus is closely associated with memory and is a region vulnerable to degeneration in Alzheimer’s disease.

The new study aimed to compare the effects of Kundalini yoga training with memory enhancement training on the resting-state connectivity of different subregions within the hippocampus. Resting-state connectivity refers to the synchronized activity between different brain regions even when a person is not performing any specific task. The researchers specifically focused on women.

“Women are twice more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than men, especially those with vascular risk factors and subjective cognitive impairment,” said study author Helen Lavretsky, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of “Convergence Mental Health: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Innovation.”

“Our earlier studies had shown a promise for yoga to improve cognitive and brain function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment, and in this study we examined women 50+ with cardiovascular risk factors and subjective memory complaints who are at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”

For their study, the researcher recruited 22 women from a larger randomized controlled trial. The study design was structured as a 12-week intervention, during which participants were assigned to either the yoga group or the memory enhancement training group.

In the yoga group, participants attended Kundalini yoga classes led by a certified instructor, which involved a combination of movement, meditation, breathing exercises, and mental visualization. Additionally, participants practiced Kirtan Kriya meditation daily at home, following specific protocols.

On the other hand, the memory training group participated in memory enhancement training sessions, where they learned various memory strategies through scripted classes and companion workbooks. Both groups adhered to their respective interventions while refraining from engaging in other mind-body practices.

Participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans both at the beginning of the study and after the 12-week intervention. These scans included high-resolution T1-weighted and T2-weighted images, as well as resting-state BOLD images to capture functional connectivity patterns in the brain.

The researchers discovered significant differences in the resting-state connectivity of hippocampal subregions between the two intervention groups.

An anterior hippocampal subregion, which is associated with the default mode network (DMN) – a brain network involved in self-referential and introspective activities – displayed significantly greater connectivity increases in the yoga group compared to the memory training group. This heightened connectivity was particularly notable with brain regions related to the visual system. Moreover, a posterior hippocampal subregion that is also part of the DMN exhibited more pronounced connectivity increases in the yoga group, establishing connections with other brain regions.

On the other hand, the memory training group exhibited more widespread connectivity increases involving posterior hippocampal subregions. These subregions were associated with sensory-based networks, namely the sensory motor network (SMN) and the auditory network (AN). Within the memory training group, the posterior hippocampal subregions displayed stronger connectivity increases with several brain regions in the DMN as well as the frontoparietal network (FPN), which is associated with tasks requiring cognitive control and attention.

“This study showed the differences in brain connectivity between yoga and memory training that refined our understanding of the role of posterior and anterior hippocampus in regulating cognitive tasks that are offered by yoga and memory training,” Lavretsky told PsyPost.

The study’s findings suggest that Kundalini yoga and memory enhancement training have distinct effects on hippocampal subregion connectivity in women with subjective memory decline and cardiovascular risk factors. Kundalini yoga appears to target stress-related impairments in visual processing, while memory enhancement training seems to enhance sensory integration and memory-related connectivity.

“Yoga or memory training can help improve brain health and cognition, but they do so via different neuroplastic pathways that can improve structure and function in the hippocampus — a structure important for memory and emotion regulation,” Lavretsky explained.

But the study authors highlighted the need for future studies to include larger participant groups and more robust experimental designs. Specifically, they emphasize the importance of incorporating a placebo group or a control arm in these studies. Such groups would allow for a better comparison between the effects of yoga and memory enhancement training.

“It is unclear when prevention of cognitive decline needs to start and whether practicing yoga by normal young adults or even children can provide such neuroprotection,” Lavretsky told PsyPost. “We need to start prevention earlier and follow longer to show the delayed onset or prevention of dementia later in life.”

“Yoga is a life skill for stress reduction that can be easily learned and does not require a prescription or a doctor visit that can provide stress reduction, anti-inflammatory effects, and brain fitness effect if practiced regularly at any age,” she added.

The study, “Impact of Yoga Versus Memory Enhancement Training on Hippocampal Connectivity in Older Women at Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease“, was authored by Lisa A. Kilpatrick Prabha Siddarth, Beatrix Krause-Sorio, Michaela M. Milillo, Yesenia Aguilar-Faustino, Linda Ercoli, Katherine L. Narr, Dharma S. Khalsa, and Helen Lavretsky.

This content was originally published here.

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