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Differing regions of the human brain work in tandem to form large-scale integrated brain networks. Three large-scale brain region networks organize much of human brain activity: the Central Executive Network (CEN), the Salience Network (SN), and the Default Mode Network (DMN).
The CEN is dominant when we are deliberately focusing on a task, the SN is dominant when we are evaluating sensory input in preparing to respond, and the DMN is dominant when we are off-task and mind-wandering.
These networks are relevant to mindfulness meditation which involves deliberate attentional focus (CEN) on bodily sensations (SN) that minimizes mind-wandering (DMN). Much of the research on the effect of mindfulness meditation training on these brain networks is limited by small sample sizes, correlational findings, and the lack of control groups.
Bremer et al. [Scientific Reports] tested the longitudinal effect of mindfulness training on the functional connectivity between these brain networks using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with adult participants.
The researchers assigned 46 German meditation-naïve adults (50% male; average age = 35) to 31 days of either web-based mindfulness or health education training. Initial assignment was random, but researchers slightly adjusted the assignments to equalize the sex and age of the groups.
Participants underwent resting-state fMRI brain scans before and after intervention. Trainings involved daily 10-15-minute audio and video content. Mindfulness training was developed by a MBSR instructor. Health training involved excerpts from popular science broadcasts on a broad array of health topics. Participants needed to complete at least 23 sessions to be included in the data analysis.
fMRI data were analyzed for functional connectivity, dynamic functional connectivity, and seed-based connectivity. Functional connectivity measures how much two brain networks are interconnected at a given time. Dynamic functional connectivity measures how much connectivity between networks fluctuates in tandem over time. Seed-based connectivity measures how regions of interest interact with the whole brain.
While the functional connectivity analysis showed no significant effects, the dynamic functional connectivity analysis showed the mindfulness training group had increased dynamic functional connectivity between regions of the DMN and regions of the SN while controls did not.
Seed-based connectivity analysis (using the DMN and SN regions identified in the prior analysis as seeds) found similar increases in connectivity between regions of the DMN and SN in the mindfulness group but not controls.
The researchers interpret this greater functional connectivity as reflecting an individual’s growing awareness of when they are mind-wandering during mindfulness practice and using that awareness as a signal to return to focusing.
This study shows an increased DMN-SN dynamic functional connectivity after mindfulness training in naïve meditators. These brain findings offer some neural function correlates of how meditators track mind-wandering and re-focus attention.
The researchers caution that focused-attention and open-monitoring meditations would probably result in different patterns of connectivity.
Bremer, B., Wu, Q., Mora Álvarez, M. G., Hölzel, B. K., Wilhelm, M., Hell, E., Tavacioglu, E. E., Torske, A., & Koch, K. (2022). Mindfulness meditation increases default mode, salience, and central executive network connectivity. Scientific Reports.
Link to study
Does mindfulness practice increase altruism? Research suggests the answer is mixed. For example, mindfulness practice is shown to increase altruistic behavior among people who have a strong predisposition to altruism but decrease it when they are self-centered.
Interpreting the data from existing studies can be difficult because studies vary as to whether they teach mindfulness in conjunction with lovingkindness and compassion or as a stand-alone attentional practice.
Malin & Gumpel [Mindfulness] conducted an experiment to test whether a brief mindfulness practice affected people’s willingness to help someone in distress. They also examined whether mindfulness practice had a larger effect on helping behavior in people with higher initial levels of empathy.
The researchers randomly assigned 189 Israeli undergraduates (85% female; mean age = 21 years) to either mindfulness practice, listening to music, or listening to a lecture. Interventions and data collection were administered by Zoom.
The mindfulness group involved two 30-minute guided meditations offered one week apart. Meditation focused on non-judgmental observation of sensations, thoughts, and feelings during a body scan. Meditation training did not include training in loving-kindness or compassion.
Music and lecture control conditions were also offered in two 30-minute Zoom sessions one week apart. The music intervention consisted of relaxing classical music, and the lecture topics focused on empathy and help-giving. Participants were assessed prior to the intervention on a self-report measure of capacity for empathy.
At the end of the second intervention session, participants listened to a pre-recorded sham interview with a college student named “Anna.” Anna was alleged to be part of the college radio station’s effort to determine what content interested students. In the interview, Anna described her difficulties struggling with a chronic illness.
Study participants then completed questionnaires measuring state mindfulness and their empathic response to Anna. They were also provided an opportunity to register to volunteer for an organization that helped people like Anna. Participants intending to volunteer could also submit their personal information so that the volunteer organization could contact them.
Study results showed the mindfulness group had a significantly greater proportion of participants willing to volunteer to help people like Anna than the control groups. Thirty-six percent of the mindfulness group left contact information so that they could volunteer, while 14% of the music and 16% of the lecture group did.
Baseline empathy levels significantly predicted self-reported empathy for “Anna” in the mindfulness group (b=1.40), but not in the music (b=0.28) or lecture (b=0.09) groups. Specifically, mindfulness practice increased empathic responding in participants with high baseline levels of empathy and decreased empathic responding in those with low baseline levels of empathy. Listening to music or a lecture on empathy did not show this effect.
Self-reported empathy for “Anna” correlated with a willingness to volunteer in the mindfulness (r=.38) and music groups (r=.30) but not in the lecture group (r=.04).
The results show that guided meditation practice can increase the intention to volunteer to help a stranger in distress (at least shortly after mindfulness practice). People with high baseline levels of empathy have higher levels of empathic response to a person in distress after mindfulness practice. On the other hand, mindfulness decreases empathic responsiveness in people with low baseline levels of empathy.
The study is limited to the degree that it measures intent to volunteer rather than actual volunteering.
Malin, Y., & Gumpel, T. P. (2022). Short Mindfulness Meditation Increases Help-Giving Intention Towards a Stranger in Distress. Mindfulness.
Adolescents and young adults are more likely to newly acquire HIV infections than other age groups. This young cohort is also less likely to access medical care, adhere to antiretroviral therapy, or achieve viral suppression when compared to older age cohorts.
Sibinga et al. [AIDS Care] evaluated whether Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) could increase medication compliance and help reduce HIV viral load in adolescents and young adults living with HIV infection.
The researchers randomly assigned 74 HIV positive adolescents and young adults aged 13-24 (average age = 21; 92% Black) to MBSR, health education, or medical treatment as usual. The MBSR program included 8 weekly 2-hour sessions and a 3-hour retreat. MBSR content was modified to make it more relevant to urban youth.
The 8-week health education control was matched to MBSR in terms of the length and frequency of meetings and group size. It offered didactic information on physical activity, nutrition, weight, and personal care. Treatment as usual consisted of clinic visits and lab work every 3-6 months.
Data analysis showed no significant differences between the health education (N=32) and treatment as usual (N= 8) groups on any variables, and so the groups were combined as a single control group to compare against the MBSR group. While this was not the original plan for the trial, it added more power to compare MBSR to a study control group.
Average MBSR attendance was 6 sessions with 5 participants attending no sessions. Average health education attendance was 5 sessions with 7 participants attending no sessions.
Participants were assessed at baseline, post-treatment, and 6- and 12-month follow up on medication adherence (as measured by a self-report questionnaire of pills prescribed and taken and of missed doses per week), HIV viral load, and CD4 cell counts. Viral load is a measure of the presence of the virus in the bloodstream. CD4 count is a measure of cellular-based immunity. Higher viral load and lower CD4 count are indicators of disease progression.
Within-group results showed participants in both MBSR and the combined control group attained significantly higher rates of medication adherence at post-treatment (OR = 1.81) and 6-month follow-up (OR = 3.95) than at baseline. The MBSR group had a significantly greater increase in medication adherence at post-treatment than the control group (OR = 2.50). This relative improvement did not persist at 12 months.
At immediate post-treatment, there was a trend toward a greater MBSR HIV viral load decrease compared to the control group. This trend became significant when only participants who attended at least one intervention session were included in the analysis. CD4 levels were unchanged in both groups after the intervention.
The study shows a MBSR program modified to meet the needs of urban youth can significantly improve antiretroviral medication adherence for up to six months relative to a health education intervention. The study is limited by its reliance on a self-report measure of medication adherence given the limitations of human recall of taking pills as well as reporting bias.
Sibinga, E. M. S., Webb, L., Perin, J., Tepper, V., Kerrigan, D., Grieb, S., Denison, J., & Ellen, J. (2022). Mindfulness instruction for medication adherence among adolescents and young adults living with HIV: A randomized controlled trial. AIDS Care.
Our decision making is often biased in favor of benefit to ourselves. When categorizing whether possessions belong to us or someone else, we tend to be more accurate and make the decision more rapidly when the possessions are our own. This experimental result has been found so often that some researchers believe self-prioritizing is an inevitable part of decision-making. Interventions that reduce ego-involvement may reduce this type of self-bias.
In two separate experiments, Golubickis et al. [Psychonomic Bulletin and Review] tested whether a brief mindfulness meditation could reduce or eliminate decision-making self-bias compared to a control intervention.
In the first experiment, the researchers randomly assigned 160 undergraduates (83% female; average age = 22 years) to a brief mindfulness meditation or a control group. Participants accessed the experiment through an internet web portal. Once on the website, participants engaged in a 5-minute pre-recorded guided exercise. The mindfulness group was instructed to attend to their breathing non-judgmentally and to disidentify with thoughts. The control group was instructed to allow their minds to wander and immerse themselves in their thoughts, emotions, and memories.
After the guided exercises, participants were shown images on the computer of pens and pencils. Half of each study group was instructed to think of the pencils as their own and the pens as belonging to a friend. The other half of each study group was told to think of the pencils as their own and the pens as belonging to a friend. Participants were then shown 200 images of pens and pencils for 100 milliseconds each and asked to indicate whether each object was their own or belonged to the friend by pushing keyboard keys.
The second experiment was identical to the first, except the control group was assigned a different task. Participants were 160 undergraduates (74% female; average age = 22 years). In this study, the study control group was given 5 minutes to solve a visual puzzle task which involved constructing shapes out of polygons. This problem-solving task was selected by the researchers to rule out the possibility that the control group task in the first study may have inadvertently increased self-focused ego involvement.
Control groups in both studies were significantly more accurate in identifying items belonging to themselves than those belonging to friends. They also had quicker reaction times to their own objects as opposed to objects belonging to friends. Conversely, the mindfulness group responded to self-identified and other-identified items with equal accuracy and speed.
The researchers subsequently performed a computer modeling drift diffusion analysis. This type of analysis is designed to sort out whether study group differences are due to differences in processing stimulus information or due to differences in preparing to respond. Computer modeling in this way suggested the mindfulness group was more cautious about making a response about ownership, needed more information before deciding, and more quickly absorbed information about the pens and pencils.
This study shows a brief web-based guided mindfulness meditation can reduce self-bias in categorizing possessions as belonging to oneself. Thus, it supports the idea that mindfulness helps reduce certain types of ego-bias in cognitive processing related to ownership of inexpensive items.
Golubickis, M., Tan, L. B. G., Saini, S., Catterall, K., Morozovaite, A., Khasa, S., & Macrae, C. N. (2022). Knock yourself out: Brief mindfulness-based meditation eliminates self-prioritization. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
Our body’s adaptive response to a stressor occurs in temporal phases and is the outcome of complex interactions between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and the endocrine system. This phased time scale is the outcome of feedback loops between the systems and the time it takes for stress hormones to both enter the blood stream and subsequently be deactivated. Many studies ignore this complexity by measuring stress at a single timepoint or with only a sole biomarker.
Gamaiunova, et al. [Biological Psychology] tested the effects of two different mindfulness-based interventions on multiple biological measures of stress across different temporal phases of the stress response. A better understanding of the temporal dynamics of these measures might help us better understand discrepancies between studies that show different results.
The researchers randomly assigned 99 healthy Swiss adult volunteers to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Buddhist-enhanced Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR-B), or a waitlist control. Attrition was high, and data from only 65 participants (average age = 29 years; 65% female) were analyzed. MBSR was taught in 8 weekly 2.5-hour sessions with a 7th week retreat day and 55 minutes a day of homework. MBSR-B was similarly structured but included additional material on the Buddhist themes of impermanence, ethics, lovingkindness, compassion, non-self, and craving.
Following the study interventions, participants completed a social stress task in a laboratory setting. After being hooked up to an electrocardiograph (EKG), participants rested for ten minutes. Participants were then given 15 minutes to prepare a talk as part of a stress task. During the stress task, participants gave 5-minute speeches and engaged in 5 minutes of mental arithmetic while being recorded on camera and observed by two research assistants wearing white lab coats. The participants then remained in the lab for a 30-minute recovery period. EKGs were recorded from the start of the rest period through the recovery period.
Saliva samples of cortisol (a stress hormone) and α-amylase (a surrogate for serum epinephrine and norepinephrine) were drawn during the rest, anticipation, task, and recovery periods. EKGs were analyzed for heart rate variability and the duration of the pre-ejection period. Heart rate variability increases due to parasympathetic activity, and the pre-ejection period shortens due to sympathetic activity. Participants were also asked to rate their positive and negative affect during rest, anticipation, task, and recovery.
The results showed both MBSR groups had significantly lower cortisol levels under the curve during the anticipatory period than controls (d=0.78-0.82). They also showed significantly lower relative percent decreases in pre-ejection period duration than controls during the anticipatory (d=0.71-0.82) and task (d=0.70-0.87) periods, but not during the recovery period. Both MBSR groups showed a significantly lesser relative percent decrease in heart rate variability during the anticipatory (d = 0.72-0.88) and task (d = 0.88-1.05) periods than controls, but only the MBSR-B group showed a significant effect (d = 1.10) during the recovery period when compared to the control group.
The MBSR-B group reported smaller increases in negative affect than controls during the anticipatory phase (d=.97) while both treatment groups reported smaller increases in negative affect during the task phase (d=0.95-0.88). The treatment groups also reported smaller declines in positive affect than controls during the task phase (d =0.95-0.91). No between-group differences were noted for α-amylase levels.
The study shows MBSR and MBSR-B both reduce subjective and biological components of the laboratory-induced stress response, but these effects vary depending on the measure used and the phase of the stress response during which they were measured. The study was limited in its power to detect significant differences due to its relatively high attrition rate.
Gamaiunova, L., Kreibig, S. D., Dan-Glauser, E., Pellerin, N., Brandt, P.-Y., & Kliegel, M. (2022). Effects of Two Mindfulness Based Interventions on the Distinct Phases of the Stress Response Across Different Physiological Systems. Biological Psychology.
Ulcerative colitis is a debilitating chronic inflammatory bowel disease with symptoms that include diarrhea, abdominal pain, fecal incontinence, fever, and fatigue. The disease is characterized by acute symptomatic flares interspersed with periods of asymptomatic remission. Flares can be triggered by stress, and mindfulness-based interventions may have a role to play in disease management.
Jedel et al. [Inflammatory Bowel Diseases] tested whether mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) could reduce symptom flare frequency and severity in patients with inactive ulcerative colitis.
The researchers randomly assigned 43 meditation-naïve ulcerative colitis patients with inactive disease (average age = 42 years; 58% female; 72% Caucasian) to either modified MBSR or a psychoeducational control. MBSR was delivered in 8 weekly 1½-2-hour weekly group sessions with a 4-hour retreat in the 7th week. The shortened session lengths were made to accommodate the very small class sizes.
The psychoeducational control consisted of similarly structured group sessions with didactic material on the causes of physical illness, the effects of stress on physical health, the protective role of exercise, and cardiovascular disease risk factors.
Participants completed assessments at baseline, post-intervention, and 6- and 12-month follow-up. Participants completed measures of perceived stress, depression, anxiety, sleep quality, mindfulness (Five-Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire), disease symptoms and quality of life. They also submitted stool, urine, and blood samples, and were given sigmoidoscopies.
Stool samples were evaluated for levels of calprotectin which is associated with bowel inflammation, and urine samples were evaluated for levels of cortisol (a stress hormone). Blood samples were assessed for the proinflammatory biomarkers IL-6, IL-8, and C-reactive protein.
The results showed MBSR participants experienced significantly fewer flares: none of the 20 MBSR participants experienced flares while 5 of the 23 controls did. There were no significant between-group differences on any biological or psychological measure once participants who experienced flares were excluded. Those who experienced flares were excluded because the steroid treatment they received for their flares would have influenced their biological markers.
Mindfulness scores were significantly correlated with decreased perceived stress scores (r= -.54) and calprotectin levels were correlated with elevated urinary cortisol (r = .37), supporting the role of stress in ulcerative colitis.
The study shows that MBSR reduced the incidence of symptom flares in ulcerative colitis patients relative to a psychoeducation program.
The study is limited by its small sample size. The researchers also interpreted MBSR as having a positive effect on several psychological variables (e.g., mindfulness, depression) because of significant within-group improvements on these variables over time even though there were no between-group differences on these variables.
Jedel, S., Beck, T., Swanson, G., Hood, M. M., Voigt, R. M., Gorenz, A., Jakate, S., Raeisi, S., Hobfoll, S., & Keshavarzian, A. (2022). Mindfulness Intervention Decreases Frequency and Severity of Flares in Inactive Ulcerative Colitis Patients: Results of a Phase II, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Inflammatory Bowel Diseases.
To err is human, but for organizations like hospitals even small errors can cost lives. Organizations try to anticipate and avoid errors, and high-stake demands to not err can motivate employees to hide mistakes when they occur. People who are more “authentic” may be less likely to hide their errors because their self-worth is less dependent on what others think of them.
Mindfulness may aid authenticity by facilitating greater self-awareness and self-acceptance, thereby enabling people to act in accord with their values.
Choi et al. [Journal of Occupational Health Psychology] explored how changes in mindfulness affect authenticity and error hiding. They also studied the effects of mindfulness training compared to exercise or a wait-list control on mindfulness, authenticity, error hiding, and qualitative interview content.
The researchers randomly assigned 230 employees (94% female; age range=25-54 years; 35% held front-line clinical roles) from four Canadian hospitals to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Pilates training, or a wait-list control.
The 8-week MBSR program was modified so that weekly group-based classes were one hour long. Pilates exercise training was also taught in a series of 8 one-hour weekly group sessions and was designed to improve core strength, balance, flexibility, and relaxation.
Participants were assessed at baseline, post-intervention, and one-month follow-up on measures of mindfulness (5 items from the Mindful Attention and Awareness Scale), authentic functioning (12 items from the Authentic Functioning Scale) and error hiding (3 items from the Error Orientation and Motivation Scale).
The authentic functioning measure included items like “I frequently pretend to enjoy something when in actuality I really don’t.” The error hiding measure included items like “I do what I can to make sure that no one knows I make mistakes.”
The results show that all three groups showed increases in mindfulness scores over time but there were no significant between-group differences. The MBSR group showed significantly greater increases in authentic functioning than both comparison groups at post-intervention and follow-up. There were no significant differences in error hiding over time or between conditions.
The researchers then examined the interrelationship between changes in variables over time regardless of group assignment. They found that the rate of increase in mindfulness correlated with the rate of increase in authentic functioning (r = .76), which in turn correlated with the rate of decrease in error hiding (r = -.45).
A qualitative analysis of post-intervention interviews with MBSR and Pilates participants showed increases in self-acceptance, self-awareness, self-compassion, self-esteem, and self-determination. There were dramatic between-group differences in how often these themes were reported. For example, 71% of the MBSR group reported improvements in attention and awareness, while only 21% of the Pilates exercise group did.
Similarly 50% of the MBSR group reported greater life fulfillment, while 0% of the Pilates group did. The same magnitude of differences occurred with greater reports of improved work-related outcomes, interpersonal effects, emotional regulation, and relationship with oneself in the MBSR group.
The study shows MBSR is more effective in increasing authentic functioning than Pilates exercise or a wait-list control. There was no evidence MBSR reduces error hiding, but the error hiding measure used was probably too brief to show much variability in scores. It also only measured what people were willing to say about how they viewed making errors, and did not measure actual errors, either hidden or unhidden.
The study is limited by its reliance on self-report measures, and the fact that qualitative analysis raters were not blinded to condition.
Choi, E., Leroy, H., Johnson, A., & Nguyen, H. (2022). Flaws and all: How mindfulness reduces error hiding by enhancing authentic functioning. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.
Findings from several pilot studies have led many to believe that just 8 weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) can induce measurable brain structural changes. These changes, if true, would be important to highlight the mechanisms underlying gains in attention and emotion regulation after individuals participate in MBSR.
MBSR studies that show structural brain changes, however, rely on small participant samples and either use participants as their own controls or lack active controls. Such preliminary study designs tend to err on the side of detecting effects that are not always genuine or robust.
Kral et al. [Science Advances] attempted to replicate the previous findings that showed brain structural changes occurring after MBSR. The investigators pooled Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) data from two previously published studies that had sufficient sample sizes and used randomization to groups as well as an active control comparison condition. Pooling data from two studies can increase power to detect significant brain change differences by study group.
The researchers pooled then analyzed data from two published studies (N=218, average age = 46; 61% female; 84% Caucasian). Participants were drawn from a non-patient population and were meditation naïve. They were randomly assigned to a standard 8-week MBSR program, a Health Education Program, or a wait-list control. MBSR and Health Education
Programs were matched on the number and length of group classes and the amount of homework assigned. The Health Education Program included exercise, music therapy, and nutrition education and practice.
Participants were assessed at baseline and post-intervention on a variety of psychological measures including the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, and on MRI scans that yielded brain structural measures of gray matter density, gray matter volume, and cortical thickness. Brain regions of interest included the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebellum, posterior parietal cortex, temporal-parietal junction, caudate, and insula.
The pooled results showed no significant between-group differences on any brain structural changes in the areas of interest. The only significant result was an association between the amount of MBSR home practice and reduced right amygdala volume (partial η2=0.08), but there was no significant group x home practice time interaction.
While brain structure remained unchanged, previously published data from these studies showed significant between-group differences in mindfulness, psychological well-being, and brain region functional connectivity.
This replication analysis of pooled data from two controlled trials does not support results from previous studies showing that 8-weeks of MBSR induces structural brain changes. The study does not rule out the possibility that longer amounts of mindfulness practice, beyond eight weeks, may induce structural brain changes.
The study is important in that it underscores the importance of conducting well-controlled replication studies before pilot study results can be interpreted with confidence.
Kral, T. R. A., Davis, K., Korponay, C., Hirshberg, M. J., Hoel, R., Tello, L. Y., Goldman, R. I., Rosenkranz, M. A., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2022). Absence of structural brain changes from mindfulness-based stress reduction: Two combined randomized controlled trials. Science Advances.
Epigenetics is the study of how behaviors and environments turn the genes of our fixed DNA “on” or “off” to produce proteins and so alter cellular activity. NF-κB (Nuclear Factor kappa B) refers to a family of naturally occurring protein transcription factors that activate DNA to regulate our immune cells.
In response to stress in humans and other animals, there is often increased NF-κB activity that functions as an evolved inflammatory response to address the physical injury often accompanying stress.
Prior research shows that mindfulness training can down-regulate pro-inflammatory gene expression in samples experiencing elevated stress including lonely older adults, breast cancer survivors, and people with sleep disorders.
Dutcher et al. [Brain, Behavior, and Immunity] conducted a randomized controlled trial to test whether mindfulness training down-regulates pro-inflammatory gene expression in elevated stress adults who lack pre-existing medical conditions.
The researchers randomly assigned 100 generally healthy call-center customer service employees (average age= 34 years; 67% female; 64% Caucasian) who reported elevated subjective levels of stress to a mindfulness training or active control condition.
Participants listened to 10-20-minute daily audio lessons on their smartphones across 30 days. Compliance was high, with each groups completing 97% of their smartphone assignments.
The mindfulness group listened to audio content of the Headspace app basics program that offers guided mindful awareness practices. The control group listened to audio content for a similar amount of time that focused on problem solving, planning, analytic thinking, self-reflection, and guided imagery. This comparator was intended to also reduce levels of perceived stress.
Participants completed a perceived stress scale and donated blood samples at baseline and one-week post-intervention. RNA was extracted from blood samples and analyzed for gene expression patterns.
The results showed both the mindfulness group (d = 0.87) and the active control group (d = 0.86) showed significant large-sized reductions in subjectively reported stress. There was no significant between-group difference.
The mindfulness group showed a greater reduction in gene activation in the pro-inflammatory NF-κB pathway than did controls (d = -0.30). The effect size for the difference in gene activation between groups was small.
This human subjects trial showed both mindfulness training and psychoeducation apps reduce subjectively reported stress levels in people who are generally healthy and employed yet with elevated stress. Only the mindfulness group showed a significant reduction in pro-inflammatory gene expression activity. This finding is potentially important because elevated inflammation is associated with a variety of physical and mental illnesses.
The study is limited by its lack of long-term follow-up as well as a lack of a waitlist control to account for extraneous factors influencing genomic activity.
Dutcher, J. M., Cole, S. W., Williams, A. C., & Creswell, J. D. (2022). Smartphone mindfulness meditation training reduces Pro-inflammatory gene expression in stressed adults: A randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 103, 171–177.
Smartphone apps are handy for collecting data as well as for delivering intervention content. This opens the possibility of collecting objective data from large samples of participants without tying up limited research laboratory time and budgets.
Axelsen et al. [BMC Psychology] tested the effect of smartphone app-based mindfulness training against app-based music listening on attention and cognitive working memory in a large sample of business employees. A novelty of this study was the use of smartphone-based cognitive games to assess changes in participant attention and working memory.
The researchers used social media ads to recruit 623 Danish business employees to participate in a stress-reduction study. Participants were randomly assigned to a mindfulness, music-listening, or wait-list control condition. After excluding drop-outs and participants with incomplete data, data were analyzed from a sample of 459 participants (average age = 39 years; 50% male).
Drop-out and noncompletion rates were similar for the mindfulness (32%) and music (29%) groups, and lower for the wait-list controls (14%).
The mindfulness group listened to audio lessons on the Headspace apps basics program for 10 minutes daily for 30 days. The music group listened to music selections from four playlists (“focus,” “binaural beats,” “piano, “Low-Fi”) for 10 minutes daily for 30 days.
Prior studies show that music listening can improve sustained attention and reduce mental fatigue, while listening to binaural beats in the beta wave range can improve mood and vigilance.
Participants completed baseline and post-intervention measures using a perceived stress scale and two smartphone games related to cognitive performance. The “Go Sushi Go” game served as a measure sustained attention, that is, the ability to maintain focus on a task over time. Whenever participants saw an image of fresh sushi, they were to tap the screen, and whenever they saw a piece of spoiled sushi, they were to do nothing.
The “Animal Parade” game served as a measure of working memory, that is, holding previously observed information in mind and then recalling that information. As images of animals floated by one at a time, participants tapped the screen whenever an image was the exact same they saw two animals before that image. Participants earned points for correct answers that they could then use to access new “worlds” within the app.
Results showed both the mindfulness (d = 0.67) and the music (d = 0.60) groups experienced decreased perceived stress, while the control group did not (η2p = 0.05). The mindfulness (d = -0.8) and music (d = -0.3) groups showed improved sustained attention scores on the “Go Sushi Go” game but the control group did not (η2p = 0.07); score improvement in the mindfulness group was significantly greater than that of the music and control groups.
Only the mindfulness group (d = 0.95) showed improved working memory scores on “Animal Parade” game (η2p=0.17).
The study shows that mindfulness training or music app use for 10 minutes daily reduces aggregate group levels of perceived stress relative to a waitlist control. The mindfulness app also improves performance scores related to sustained attention and working memory better than an active music-listening control.
The study demonstrates the potential of using smartphones to deliver interventions as well as to assess outcomes, allowing researchers to obtain adequate sample sizes with less inconvenience to participants and researchers.
Axelsen, J. L., Meline, J. S. J., Staiano, W., & Kirk, U. (2022). Mindfulness and music interventions in the workplace: Assessment of sustained attention and working memory using a crowdsourcing approach. BMC Psychology, 10(1), 108.
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