Tai ChiStudying the brains of tai chi masters may shed light on diseases of the young and the symptoms of the old. A Center on Longevity seed grant resulted in a joint Stanford University-Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital study that examined the ability of tai chi masters to control normally autonomous functions through concentration.

This interdisciplinary study, led by SCL Faculty Affiliate and Associate Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery Jessica Rose, MD, and involving fellow Affiliates Gary Glover and Scott Atlas, along with colleagues Catie Chang and Blase Iuliano, examined the extent to which “focusing qi (internal energy flow)” alters hand and face temperature and blood flow. Master-level practitioners of tai chi – an ancient Chinese martial art and exercise – took part in the study, allowing researchers an unprecedented opportunity to examine this surprising skill and explore its possible medical implications.

Body temperature and blood flow to the hands and face are generally considered to be autonomic (unconscious) functions. The ability of tai chi masters suggests that this may not be the whole story, as these individuals demonstrated consistent control of these “unconscious” mechanisms. When researchers asked the subjects to “focus qi on hands,” hand temperature increased by approximately 2° Celsius and blood flow by an average of 81% — a significant change in both measures. This conscious control over an essential autonomic function suggests both potential therapeutic implications for disorders involving circulation, as well as reconsideration of how we approach “autonomic function” more generally.

Beyond the consistent and statistically significant control demonstrated by the study’s participants, the tai chi masters showed further ability to isolate these effects laterally. When researchers asked the subjects to focus “qi” into just one side of their bodies, only the limb on that side increased in temperature and blood flow. While anecdotal evidence had long suggested that relaxation increases blood flow to the hands and face, this was the first scientific evidence of such refined lateral control.

As each of the three tai chi masters modulated their hand and face temperature and blood flow, scans of their brain functions were taken using two distinct technologies: Digital Tensor Imaging (DTI) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). Each method provides a different insight into neurological behavior. As Rose explains, DTI scans show “a history of what is used” in the brain by tracing the extent of development in neural pathways. In contrast, fMRI scans depict “what is used in the moment.” The combination of these complementary images allows brain behavior during the study to be compared with the record of long-term behavior, providing a fuller understanding of subjects’ overall brain function.

The particular neural pathways used to focus qi and control blood flow were highly developed in the brains of these tai chi masters, reflecting a long history of intent body control.

“They have beautiful brains,” Rose confirmed with enthusiasm.

The beauty of highly developed neural pathways goes beyond the aesthetic. One’s ability to focus and strengthen neural pathways is used therapeutically in pain reduction techniques, in which patients are taught to activate and deactivate certain areas of the brain involved in pain processing. This cognitive training is used to modulate particularly debilitating symptoms.  Tai chi, by training participants’ brains to consciously take greater control over their own bodies, may suggest applications for those suffering from a chronic lack of conscious muscle and unconscious circulatory control.

One such disorder is cerebral palsy, in which neural pathways to the limbs are inhibited or damaged, often irreparably. There is some conjecture that tai chi may offer a method to develop crucial areas of the brain responsible for controlling the affected limbs. Given the advanced ability of the master subjects to not only control heat and blood flow, but to control these functions laterally, such an advance in circulatory function to vulnerable areas could be invaluable to cerebral palsy patients.

Tai chi masters, with their highly developed ability to control blood flow to the hands (and to each one separately), may help researchers distinguish the neural tracks between the arms and legs, and between the right and left limbs. Locating and tracking these neural pathways is an important step in determining the location and likely progression of cerebral palsy’s neurological symptoms – a vital advancement for a disorder diagnosed in 1,200 to 1,500 preschool age children each year.

While the extent of tai chi research and its therapeutic benefits are undetermined, the art is widely recognized for its contribution to general health and wellness. Medical research has linked it with improvements in a range of mental and physical measures, from cognition to cardiovascular and immune function. Its graceful, low-impact motion makes it particularly valuable for older adults.

There is further speculation that tai chi effectively lowers the rate of “oxidative stress,” a process described by Michael P. Lisanti, M.D., Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in a recent interview as “rusting, like the Tin-man in the Wizard of Oz” (Jefferson Kimmel Cancer Center 2011).

Oxidative stress is a significant metric for characterizing the extent of aging in a person’s body, independent of a person’s chronological age. Unfortunately, current means of measuring oxidative stress remain imprecise, and further research is needed accurate system of measurement. Such a measure could not only provide insight into the impact of healthful activities such as tai chi for individuals’ health and wellness, but could potentially redefine our perception of both age and aging.

There remains tremendous potential for further pilot studies to explore and organize this rapidly expanding field of aging, wellness, and oxidation. As Dr. Rose notes, such small forays “not only show how [further research] could be done successfully, but join together to create a larger resource” of information and understanding.

While this particular study has contributed its own window of understanding to this vital field, perhaps just as importantly it has demonstrated how a small step forward, linked together to an array of other projects, supported by a dynamic interdisciplinary team, can help map the terrain for research to come.