By Kathleen Fackelmann, USA TODAY

The ancient practice of meditation may change the brain in a way that helps boost attention, according to studies out Sunday at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
Buddhist monks have been saying for years that meditation helps increase attention and concentration. The new findings now offer some support for the notion.Sara Lazar of Harvard Medical School studied Westerners who meditated for about 20 minutes every day but didn't necessarily believe in the tenets of Buddhism. Lazar and colleagues used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to look at brain parts involved in memory and attention. She found that meditators had increased thickness in those regions. Those areas shrink as people get older, but this study found that older meditators were able to ward off some of that shrinkage. That finding is preliminary but suggests that a regular meditation practice might help people maintain their ability to remember and focus on details, Lazar says.Meditation involved sitting quietly and focusing on breathing or an image.

Another study suggests meditation boosts performance on tests that measure attention. Bruce O'Hara at the University of Kentucky and colleagues wanted to see how meditation might affect the ability to attend to a boring task during the mid-afternoon, a time when attention often flags. He found that 10 people taught to meditate for 40 minutes did better on a test of attention compared with their own performance after reading for 40 minutes.Too little sleep can impair performance on such tests, so the group repeated the experiment after subjects had lost a night's sleep. Meditation improved their performance even then, a finding that suggests that meditation might give the sleepy brain an edge. "Vigilance is much more difficult when you are sleepy," O'Hara says.In a study of mostly Buddhist monks, Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin found meditation produced a jump in brain waves associated with vigilance. His study also found meditation activated brain regions involved in attention.On Saturday, the exiled leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, spoke to neuroscientists, urging them to continue their crucial work on meditation. Such studies may help identify practices that will help people rein in negative emotions, he says. More than 500 scientists signed a petition against the Dalai Lama's talk: Many said they didn't want to mix religion with science.

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