Posted 08.25.2015 | by AMRA

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Adolescence is a time of rapid growth in young people’s capacity to self-regulate their emotions and maintain focus on goals, as well as a time of rapid brain development. In a longitudinal study, Friedel et al. [Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience] explored the relationship between changes in brain areas previously linked to mindfulness and the development of a tendency to be mindful of experience (dispositional mindfulness) in adolescents.

The brain regions of interest included the prefrontal cortex (an area involved in goal directed behavior and emotional regulation) and the insula (an area involved in the awareness of internal bodily states). As adolescents mature, the gray matter in their cerebral cortexes tends to thin out as neurons are selectively pruned and circuits become more efficient. The researchers predicted that a higher degree of cortical thinning would correlate with higher levels of dispositional mindfulness.

The researchers analyzed the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of 82 male and female adolescents who, as part of a larger study, underwent repeated scans at ages 16 and 19, and completed the Mindfulness Attention and Awareness Scale (MAAS) at age 19. The participants were also assessed on measures of temperament, emotional regulation, and intelligence.

Dispositional mindfulness was positively correlated with self-report measures of cognitive reappraisal, attention, and inhibitory control, and negatively correlated with measures of frustration, aggression, and depressed mood. The researchers analyzed possible relationships between cortical thinning and dispositional mindfulness in twenty different regions of the prefrontal and insular cortex. Contrary to expectation, prefrontal cortical thinning was unrelated to dispositional mindfulness — although prefrontal thinning was related to IQ.

There was, however, a significant correlation between a lesser degree of left anterior insular thinning and greater dispositional mindfulness. Although not predicted, this finding partially accords with prior cross-sectional research showing a relationship between greater insular thickness and both mindfulness and meditation practice in adults.

This is the first longitudinal study exploring the linkage between brain development and dispositional mindfulness in adolescence. It suggests that while greater prefrontal cortical thinning is related to higher general intelligence, reduced insular cortical thinning is related to greater dispositional mindfulness. The study is limited by a reliance on uncorrected multiple comparisons.

Reference:

Friedel, S., Whittle, S. L., Vijayakumar, N., Simmons, J. G., Byrne, M. L., Schwartz, O. S., & Allen, N. B. (2015). Dispositional mindfulness is predicted by structural development of the insula during late adolescence. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.

[Link to abstract]