Posted 02.24.2016 | by AMRA

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As we mature into old age, our ability to remain focused and quickly choose the correct response from a set of competing responses tends to diminish. Can mindfulness training help us retain our attention, executive control and emotional regulation as we age? Malinowski, et al [Mindfulness] randomly assigned mature adults to either mindfulness training or an active comparison group, and assessed the changes in their ability to perform a task that demanded focused attention, executive control, and emotional regulation while their brain activity was measured.

The researchers assigned a predominantly female cohort of 56 British older adults (average age = 64) to either mindfulness training or a “brain training” comparison condition. Mindfulness training entailed four 90-minute group-training sessions in breath-focused concentration meditation with instructions for maintaining a non-judgmental, non-elaborative attitude. Mindfulness trainees practiced meditation at home at least 10 minutes a day, five days a week, over 8 weeks.

The comparison condition met as a group for an equivalent amount of time. Both groups entailed psychoeducation, group discussion, and skills practice, but the “brain training” group practiced mental arithmetic instead of meditation, both in the groups and at home.

All participants completed the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) and a Stroop task, before and after training. The Stroop task required participants to count the number of words they saw that were presented on a computer screen. Sometimes the words’ meanings interfered with their counting (e.g., when the word “two” appeared three times) or had emotional connotations that could slow their processing speed. Participants needed to ignore the meanings and stay focused on the task.

Electroencephalography (EEG) concurrently measured the participants’ evoked response potentials (ERPs), which are brain waveforms generated specifically in response to the task.

Mindfulness trainees showed significant improvement on both their FFMQ Observing scores and their Stroop reaction times as compared to brain training trainees. Better Stroop reaction times were significantly correlated with larger fronto-central N2 ERP amplitudes (an electrical wave occurring approximately 200 milliseconds after words were presented), and mindfulness trainees showed significantly greater increases in N2 amplitudes than controls. These N2 ERPs originated in brain regions associated with attentional regulation, but not in regions associated with executive control or emotional processing.

While mindfulness improved reaction times generally, it didn’t specifically do so for incongruent or emotional word presentations. In other words, mindfulness training strengthened generic attention rather than specific executive functions involved in conflict resolution and emotional regulation.

This study shows significant improvements in attention and associated brain regions resulting from breath-focused mindfulness practice as compared to brain training in an older age group. These findings support mindfulness training as a means of improving attention in older adults; the study’s brevity of training and reliance on only a single training modality (breath concentration) may account for the lack of any executive functioning/emotional regulation effects.

Reference:

Malinowski, P., Moore, A. W., Mead, B. R., & Gruber, T. (2015). Mindful aging: The effects of regular brief mindfulness practice on electrophysiological markers of cognitive and affective processing in older adults. Mindfulness.

[Link to abstract]