Increase Brain Matter and Memory in Aging with Tai Chi


Increase Brain Matter and Memory in Aging with Tai Chi


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Tai Chi can be used as exercise to improve the body, as well as reversing the natural tendency for the brain to shrink with age.” – Functional Aging Institute


The aging process involves a systematic progressive decline in every system in the body, the brain included. This includes our mental abilities which decline with age including impairments in memory, attention, and problem solving ability. It is inevitable and cannot be avoided. Using modern neuroimaging techniques, scientists have been able to view the changes that occur in the nervous system with aging. In addition, they have been able to investigate various techniques that might slow the process of neurodegeneration that accompanies normal aging. They’ve found that mindfulness practices reduce the deterioration of the brain that occurs with aging restraining the loss of neural tissue. Indeed, the brains of practitioners of meditation and yoga have been found to degenerate less with aging than non-practitioners.


Hence, there is some hope for age related cognitive decline, as there is evidence that it can be slowed. There are some indications that physical and mental exercise can reduce the rate of cognitive decline and lower the chances of dementia. For example, contemplative practices such as meditationyoga, and Tai Chi and Qigong have all been shown to be beneficial in slowing or delaying physical and mental decline with aging. Mindfulness practices have been shown to improve cognitive processes while gentle mindful exercises such as Tai Chi and Qigong have been shown to slow age related cognitive decline. It would seem reasonable to hypothesize that Tai Chi and Baduanjin practices might decrease age related decreases in cognitive ability and degeneration of the nervous system.


In today’s Research News article “Tai Chi Chuan and Baduanjin increase grey matter volume in older adults: a brain imaging study.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: ), Tao and colleagues recruited healthy sedentary older adults (50-70 years of age) and randomly assigned them to receive either Tai Chi practice, Baduanjin practice (a very similar practice to Tai Chi), or no-treatment. Practice occurred for 12 weeks, 5 days per week, for 1 hour. Before and after training the participants underwent Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans of their brains. They were also measured for memory ability.


They found that in comparison to baseline and control participants, the Tai Chi or Baduanjin practice participants had significant increases in the amount of grey matter in the left insula, left putamen, left parahippocampus/hippocampus, left amygdala, and left inferior temporal lobe. Hence, Tai Chi or Baduanjin practice appeared to produce increases in neural tissue. In addition, the Tai Chi or Baduanjin practice participants had significant increases in overall memory ability and visual reproduction memory. These improvements in memory were related to the increases in grey matter, with large increases in neural tissue associated with large improvements in memory. Hence, Tai Chi or Baduanjin practice not only increased neural tissue and memory, but the increases in both changed together in the same direction.


Caution must be taken in interpreting these results as the control condition was inactive. As a result, it cannot be determined if Tai Chi or Baduanjin practice per se or any form of exercise could produce comparable benefits. Further research is needed employing other forms of exercise to compare to the effects of Tai Chi or Baduanjin practice.


Nonetheless, these results are interesting and exciting. They suggest that Tai Chi or Baduanjin practice can reduce or possibly reverse brain degeneration and cognitive decline associated with aging. By engaging in these mindful movement practices aging individuals appear to preserve their brains and their mental ability. In addition, the fact that these practices are safe, convenient, low cost, and social suggests that they can be widely applied to the aging population.


So, increase brain matter and memory in aging with Tai Chi.


“Keep your brain younger longer by adding tai chi to your workout routine.” – Linda Melone


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Tao, J., Liu, J., Liu, W., Huang, J., Xue, X., Chen, X., … Kong, J. (2017). Tai Chi Chuan and Baduanjin increase grey matter volume in older adults: a brain imaging study. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease : JAD, 60(2), 389–400.



The aim of this study is to investigate and compare how 12-weeks of Tai Chi Chuan and Baduanjin exercise can modulate brain structure and memory function in older adults. Magnetic Resonance Imaging(MRI) and memory function measurements (Wechsler Memory Scale-Chinese revised, WMS-CR)were applied at both the beginning and end of the study. Results showed that both Tai Chi Chuan and Baduanjin could significantly increase grey matter volume (GMV) in the insula, medial temporal lobe (MTL), and putamen after 12-weeks of exercise. No significant differences were observed in grey matter volume (GMV) between the Tai Chi Chuan and Baduanjin groups. We also found that compared to healthy controls, Tai Chi Chuan and Baduanjin significantly improved visual reproduction subscores on the WMS-CR. Baduanjin also improved mental control, recognition, touch and comprehension memory subscores of the WMS-CR compared to the control group. Memory quotient (MQ)and visual reproduction subscores were both associated with GMV increases in the putamen and hippocampus. Our results demonstrate the potential of Tai Chi Chuan and Baduanjin exercise for the prevention of memory deficits in older adults.

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