Yoga Increases GABA Levels in Brain

Neuroscience_Neurology2.jpgThe ancient Indian practice of yoga literally means to “bridge” the mind and the body, integrating it, aimed towards attaining a state of wholeness. Scientific studies have in the past demonstrated its psychological benefits, and improvements in quality of life studies.

A new pilot study carried out at Boston University School of Medicine and MacLean Hospital, at the Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, show that yoga causes a rise in gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain.

Low GABA levels are thought to contribute to the two commonest psychiatric illnesses prevalent in the world, depression and anxiety. Treatment of these conditions is carried out by drugs which raise GABA levels. The study used magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging, which is a new technique that allows us directly to visualize neurotransmitter concentrations in the brain. Several centers across the world are evaluating whether such imaging can be used to diagnose and track improvements following treatment of a variety of psychiatric disorders.

In this study, a group of eight subjects who performed Yoga for an hour were scanned, and compared to a group of eleven who just did reading, but no yoga. A 27% increase in brain GABA levels in the yoga group was noticed immediately afterwards, compared to none in the ‘reading’ group. Although the study does not indicate whether the increase in brain GABA concentrations are sufficient enough to be used for the treatment of clinical anxiety and depression, it does introduce the possibility of Yoga to be used in the treatment of a variety of illnesses, where GABA levels are depressed.

However, the reason behind reduction in brain GABA levels in patients with psychiatric illnesses is yet unknown in most cases, and whether yoga raises GABA levels in depressed patients as much as it does in healthy volunteers remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it is encouraging news for mind-body medical practitioners.


Streeter CC, Jensen JE, Perlmutter RM, Cabral HJ, Tian H, Terhune DB, Ciraulo DA, Renshaw PF. Yoga Asana Sessions Increase Brain GABA Levels: A Pilot Study. J Alternative Complement Med. 2007 May;13(4):419-26.

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
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