Yoga for brain health? ‘This Gentle Form of Yoga’ may be the best Yoga exercise for Alzheimer’s prevention

A UCLA Health investigation indicates that Yoga, Particularly Kundalini, can amplify neural activity in an area often affected by stress and tied to memory degradation.

Kundalini yoga, a style that prioritizes breath control, meditation, and visualizations, showed promising effects for elderly women susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease and worried about memory loss incidents.

Can Kundalini yoga prevent Alzheimer’s?

To check, scientists at UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior used a particular MRI method that examines brain activity in multiple regions and subsections.

They discovered that Kundalini yoga, blending physical movement and meditation with a focus on controlled breathing, recitation of mantras, and mental imagery, bolstered connections in a brain region often damaged by stress and related to memory degradation.

Under the guidance of Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a psychiatrist, the UCLA researchers contrasted the effects of yoga with Memory Enhancement Training (MET), a highly regarded approach, on the connections in the hippocampus subsections.

The hippocampus is a crucial brain area responsible for learning and memory. MET involves strategies using verbal and visual associations and practical methods to enhance memory.

“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,” remarked Lavretsky, who also oversees the Late-Life Mood, Stress, and Wellness Research Program.

Benefits of Kundalini Yoga for older adults

An essential conclusion of this investigation is that it contributes to the scientific literature asserting the benefits of yoga for brain health, particularly for women experiencing higher perceived stress and subjective memory impairment.

“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,” she added.

How does Kundalini Yoga benefit the brain?

The investigation included 22 participants, part of a broader randomized controlled trial studying the effects of yoga on Alzheimer’s risk. The average age for the 11 yoga participants was roughly 61; for the MET group, it was about 65. All participants reported a decline in memory function in the past year and one or more cardiovascular risk factors, which can also enhance Alzheimer’s disease risk. These risk factors included arterial plaque buildup, recent heart attack, diabetes, and treatment for hypertension or high cholesterol.

Both yoga and MET groups participated in a 60-minute, face-to-face training session each week for three months. The programs also included daily homework or practice sessions. The Kundalini yoga (KY) training was supplemented with the at-home practice of another brief meditative yoga form, Kirtan Kriya (KK). These yoga styles engage various senses at once and have a chanting aspect that may improve respiratory, cardiovascular, and autonomic nervous system functions, based on previous studies.

Lavretsky and her research team have reported before that Kundalini and Kirtan Kriya yoga had beneficial impacts on depression, resilience, and executive functioning in elderly adults with mild cognitive impairment. They also discovered that yoga had a stronger neuroprotective effect on the right hippocampal volume – which may suggest improved memory function – than MET in elderly women with subjective memory decline and cardiovascular risk factors.

In the new study, they used a specialized functional MRI to determine the resting-state connectivity of the hippocampus. This imaging technique, considered more sensitive to cognitive changes than hippocampal volumes, allowed the scientists to assess the hippocampus subsections, comparing the effects of yoga and memory training.

According to their results, 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 noted.

Furthermore, “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.”

The hippocampus needs to integrate information from various senses, and MET seems better than yoga in aiding this function.

“The various mnemonic strategies in MET, including verbal, visual, and spatial associative techniques, generally aim to enhance multimodal sensory integration into memory processes. Thus, MET may show superiority to KY+KK in terms of hippocampal sensory-integration important to memory,” which could support better memory reliability, the investigation reported.

While the small-scale study implies these yoga styles may especially benefit women experiencing stress and have additional Alzheimer’s disease risk factors, the authors propose future, large-scale studies with a placebo group or control arm to elucidate the beneficial effects of both yoga and MET on hippocampal connectivity and memory.

The findings of the study were published in the Journal of Alzheimer s Disease.

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