Posted from archive: 05.14.2013 | by AMRA


Nearly 450 researchers, MBSR teachers, and clinicians assembled for the 11th Annual International Scientific Conference of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society this April in Norwood, Massachusetts. Presentations by Norman Farb, Ph.D., Wendy Hasenkamp, Ph.D., David Creswell, Ph.D., Eileen Luders, Ph.D. and David Vago, Ph.D. focused on the neuropsychological correlates of mindfulness. Each of the researchers presented data from past studies along with new findings from as yet unpublished work.

Norman Farb presented MRI data on two opposing neural systems: the interoceptive pathway where bodily awareness is represented, and the default network which is often associated with self, referential narrative awareness and mind wandering. He presented studies showing that MBSR training is associated with increased recruitment of the interoceptive awareness pathway along with increased connectivity of the posterior insula (a key component of that pathway) to the prefrontal cortex. This increased connectivity had both state and trait features.

Wendy Hasenkamp’s MRI research showed how different neural networks are deployed during different moments of focused meditation, depending on whether focus is established, the mind wanders off focus, the mind becomes aware of wandering, or the mind re-establishes its focus. She identified activity in the brain’s default network during mind wandering, activity in a neural salience network with awareness of mind wandering, and activity in a neural executive network for shifting and maintaining focus. More experienced meditators had increased resting-state functional connectivity between the right insula and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the bilateral inferior parietal lobe, suggesting increased functional connectivity within and between attentional networks. Experienced meditators also showed decreased ventromedial prefrontal activity while shifting back to focus, perhaps reflecting a decreased “stickiness” of their thoughts.

David Creswell also presented MRI functional connectivity data showing that a three-day mindfulness retreat increased connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and the bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This increased functional connectivity was shown to mediate a decrease in the participants’ interleukin-6 inflammatory response.

Eileen Luders reviewed a series of studies showing structural brain changes in long-term meditators (participants had an average of 21 years of practice) compared with matched controls. Meditators had greater grey matter concentration, greater fiber connectivity, greater cortical gyrification, and a thicker corpus callosum and larger hippocampus compared with controls. They also showed a slower decline of white matter connectivity with age.

David Vago proposed a neurobiological model to help guide mindfulness investigation called SART (Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation and Self-Transcendence), which hypothesizes the brain networks and processes undergirding meta-awareness, emotional and behavioral modulation, and prosocial transcendence of self-focused needs. Vago hypothesizes that meditation training modulates self-specifying and narrative-self brain networks through an integrative fronto-parietal control network. He presented preliminary data using experienced meditators illustrating the role of the integrative fronto-parietal network (along with the basal ganglia and primary somatosensory cortex). Hours of formal meditation practice correlated with higher frontopolar cortical activation and lower self-reflective hippocampal, cortical-memory network activation.

Taken together, these studies point to significant changes in brain structure and functional connectivity that occur over time with meditative experience, as well as progress in identifying brain networks that are responsible for different aspects of meditative experience. Reference: 11th Annual International Scientific Conference of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society, Norwood, Massachusetts. April 2013.

[Link to abstract]