Meditative Neuroplasticity: The Effect of Qi Gong Meditation on Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor and Cortisol Levels

Principal Investigators: Heather Zwickey, PhD, Melissa Gard, ND & Travis Whitney, ND

Abstract: Neurodegeneration is a major health issue in neurological disorders like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and stroke. People with these, and other neurodegenerative diseases, have low levels of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a neurotransmitter that promotes synaptogenesis.1–4 Excess cortisol has also been associated with some neurodegenerative diseases.8 Cortisol is an important hormone in learning and memory, however too little or too much can be detrimental to learning. 6,7 Increasing BDNF levels and lowering cortisol levels in people with neurodegenerative disease could be beneficial to care because it could lead to production of new neurons and synapses. In healthy people, higher BDNF and lower cortisol may increase learning potential through the development and differentiation of new neurons. 5

Whether people who meditate have increased BDNF levels has not been studied. However, there is physiological evidence to suggest that this is true. For example, neuronal growth is promoted by BDNF and inhibited by excess cortisol. Meditation is known to decrease cortisol. Meditation has also been shown to increase neuronal growth as demonstrated by an increased cortical thickness observed in experienced meditators. Meditation may elicit these effects through an increase in BDNF activity. 9

The primary purpose of this study is to determine whether meditation affects baseline BDNF levels or increases BDNF following a meditation intervention when comparing long term meditators to non-meditators. Specifically, this pilot study examines the effects of a 30-minute meditation intervention on BDNF levels and cortisol production in a healthy sample of experienced meditators (n=10) compared to non-meditators (n=10). BDNF levels and cortisol will be compared in both groups prior to and following a 30 minute meditation intervention. A secondary goal of this study is to determine whether meditation improves cognitive performance, as measured with a modern electronic application called Lumosity. This study provides a first step to determining whether long-term meditation can increase BDNF and thereby provide a simple, low cost option to increase synaptogenesis in the brain.

The methods for BDNF collection vary across the medical literature. Some studies measure BDNF in platelets, where BDNF is stored. Other studies report serum or plasma BDNF levels. As a methodological goal of this study, we will compare BDNF levels in platelets, plasma and serum to ensure that each method of collection yields similar results. This data will provide necessary methodological information for future studies.