Posted 10.22.2020 | by AMRA

Children who have a greater cognitive capacity to sustain attention often perform better in school. Cognitive capacities such as increased attentional control can result from mindfulness training, as shown previously in samples of children. Little is known about the brain activity that links such training to sustained attention in children.

A promising mechanism to test is the functional relationship between areas of the brain that support sustained attention (the Central Executive Network, CEN) and mind wandering (the Default Mode Network, DMN). The activity of these two networks is positively correlated in very young children, and becomes increasingly anticorrelated as children develop the capacity to sustain attention and mature into adulthood.

Bauer et al. [Human Brain Mapping] tested the effects of an in-school mindfulness training on sustained attention performance as well as CEN and DMN brain activity in school children.

The researchers randomly assigned 99 sixth-graders (70% female; 53% Caucasian; average age = 12 years) to in-school mindfulness or computer coding training. Mindfulness classes incorporated 5-15 minutes of mindfulness practice per class, involving attention to breathing, body sensations, sounds, thoughts and emotions. The classes also included didactic mindfulness instruction, group discussion, and instructor feedback.

The coding intervention taught children to use a novel programming language and was designed to train creative thinking, systematic reasoning, and collaborative group work. Both interventions took place 4 times per week in 45-minute sessions across 8 weeks.

All children completed a 15-minute sustained attention task before and after intervention that required them to press a button whenever a digit appeared on a computer screen, except when the digit was the number three. A subsample of 40 children had parental permission for brain imaging, and completed fMRI brain scans measuring CEN and DMN activity while at rest before and after the intervention.

After the intervention, the mindfulness group showed significantly better performance on the computer-based sustained attention task than did the coding group (Cohen’s f2 = 0.47; large effect size). Performance in the coding group significantly declined over time, while the mindfulness group’s performance did not.

Prior to intervention, sustained attention performance correlated significantly with anticorrelations between CEN and DMN (r = -.45) for the combined sample. After intervention, the mindfulness group showed a large and significant increase in CEN-DMN anticorrelation (f2 = 0.56) compared to the coding group. Greater post-intervention improvements in sustained attention significantly correlated with larger CEN-DMN anticorrelations (r = -.51). There was a significant decrease in CEN-DMN anticorrelation in the coding group.

The study shows that in-school mindfulness training helps preserve sustained attention in children, and highlights greater segregation between the CEN and DMN activity as a likely brain mechanism. This is the first study to show a causal link between changes in attentional performance and brain functional connectivity in children. The study is limited by the smaller subset of the sample that completed brain scans.

Reference:

Bauer, C. C. C., Rozenkrantz, L., Caballero, C., Nieto-Castanon, A., Scherer, E., West, M. R., Mrazek, M., Phillips, D. T., Gabrieli, J. D. E., & Whitfield-Gabrieli, S. (2020). Mindfulness training preserves sustained attention and resting state anticorrelation between default-mode network and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: A randomized controlled trial. Human Brain Mapping.

[Link to study]