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Brain changes in children after school-based mindfulness program

Posted 09.24.2019 | by AMRA

The stress response is associated with brain activity in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala initiates the fight, flight, or freeze response to fear-inducing stimuli, while the prefrontal cortex helps modulate this response. A higher degree of connectivity between these brain regions is thought to enhance emotional regulation. These conclusions are based on research with adults. Little is known about the neural basis for children’s responses to stress, however, and whether it can be beneficially modified by mindfulness-based interventions.

Bauer et al. [Behavioral Neuroscience] tested whether mindfulness training reduces stress levels in middle school children, and if so, whether it is done by inducing changes in the amygdala and its connectivity to a region of the prefrontal cortex. This is the first study investigating the effects of a mindfulness-based intervention on children’s brain activity.

All 6th graders in a Boston charter school were randomly assigned to an 8-week mindfulness training program or an 8-week computer coding training program. The researchers requested the 6th graders’ families to permit their children to participate in the functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) portion of the study. Forty children received permission (average age = 12 years; 70% female; 53% Caucasian; Average WASI IQ = 98), and 33 of their fMRI protocols were usable.

Mindfulness and computer coding groups met four times a week for 45 minutes during the last class of the school day. Each mindfulness session included 15 minutes of mindfulness exercises involving focused attention on the present moment and related didactic instruction and group discussion. Exercises included focused breath meditations, attention to the senses, open monitoring, and practice in noticing thoughts.

Control group sessions involved teaching the SCRATCH […]

September 24th, 2019|News|

Mindfulness app associated with brain function and less smoking

Posted 06.26.2019 | by AMRA

Although most cigarette smokers want to quit, only 5% succeed in doing so each year. One reason for this low success rate is that smoking-related cues stimulate strong urges to smoke. Cues include observing someone else smoking, or engaging in activities previously associated with smoking (e.g., work breaks, meals, a cup of coffee, sex). Finding ways to reduce cue-induced urges may help more people quit.

Research shows that a brain area called the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) becomes activated whenever cigarette smokers are exposed to smoking-related cues. Research also indicates that mindfulness meditation as an intervention reduces PCC activity. Janes et al. [Neuropsychopharmacology] tested whether a smartphone mindfulness app reduced smokers’ PCC reactivity to smoking-related cues and their smoking behavior.

The researchers recruited 83 adult smokers who were interested in quitting, 67 of whom completed the study and were included in the final data analysis (average age = 44; 67% female; 91% Caucasian). PCC-reactivity to smoking cues was assessed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and participants were then randomly assigned to either mindfulness training or a control condition. Both conditions used smartphone apps for 4 weeks to help quit smoking. Participants’ PCC reactivity to smoking-related cues was re-assessed via fMRI after the intervention.

The mindfulness app consisted of 22 modules that offered daily training videos and on-demand exercises to teach the core elements of mindfulness. The app also helped participants identity triggers, monitor smoking habits, increase awareness of urges, and use mindfulness as a coping mechanism.

The control group used the National Cancer Institute’s QuitGuide App to help monitor motivation and triggers, as well as offer inspirational messages and tips for dealing with cravings and […]

June 26th, 2019|News|

Mindfulness coach supports women undergoing breast biopsy

Posted 11.26.2018 | by AMRA

About one in eight U.S. women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives. Cancer is often diagnosed by a stereotactic breast biopsy that uses a mammography-guided needle to extract suspicious tissue. The procedure requires women to remain immobile for 15-30 minutes while undergoing breast compression, which can be an uncomfortable, anxiety provoking experience.

Patients can take prescription drugs to reduce anxiety, but this requires them to be driven to and from the procedure and can delay their return to work. As a result, there is interest in non-drug interventions to reduce biopsy discomfort and anxiety.

Ratcliff et al. [Journal of the American College of Radiology] compared the effect of mindfulness meditation or focused breathing to a control group on breast biopsy pain and anxiety.

The researchers randomly assigned 76 women (average age = 55 years; 74% Caucasian and 20% Hispanic/Latina) preparing to undergo stereotactic breast biopsy to: 1) a 10-minute guided mindfulness meditation, 2) a 10-minute guided period of focused diaphragmatic breathing, or 3) a 10-minute period of listening to a neutral audio clip.

Mindfulness meditation emphasized nonjudgmental observation of the breath, sensations, thoughts, and feelings with reminders to refocus whenever the mind wandered. The meditation was guided in-person by a mind-body medicine specialist. The specialist also accompanied the patient to the biopsy, coaching them in meditation during the procedure. Focused breathing was taught and coached similarly. Audio clip patients were not accompanied or coached during the biopsy.

Measures of anxiety and pain were taken after the training interventions, every four minutes during the biopsy, and immediately following the biopsy. Additionally, an electroencephalogram (EEG) measured patient brain wave activity in regions of […]

November 26th, 2018|News|

Brain connectivity differs for short- and long-term meditators

Posted 08.28.2018 | by AMRA

Mindfulness-based interventions can enhance emotional regulation and improve mood, but we are only just beginning to understand the brain mechanisms responsible for these benefits. Kral et al. [Neuroimage] compared the brain activity of long-term meditators, short-term meditators, and non-meditators in response to emotionally positive, negative, and neutral images. The researchers sought to discover whether or not the amount of an individual’s meditation practice correlated with their response to emotional stimuli.

The researchers recruited a sample of 31 long-term Vipassana mediators (average age = 50 years, 55% female, average meditation practice = 9,000 hours) and compared them to a sample of 127 meditation-naive recruits. Following initial data collection, 86 of the meditation-naïve recruits (average age = 48, 63% female) were randomly assigned to a standard 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program or a Health Enhancement program (HEP) which served as a time-and-attention control.

The long-term mediators and the meditation-naive participants spent a day in the laboratory prior to the meditation-naive group’s random assignment to intervention. Following intervention, the meditation-naive group returned to the laboratory for re-assessment.

In the laboratory, participants were shown emotionally positive, negative, and neutral images while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a procedure that measures metabolic activity in different regions of the brain. The researchers measured fMRI activity in two specific brain regions: the amygdala, which plays a role in generating emotion, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), which plays a role in regulating emotion. Participants also completed a self-report measure of mindfulness, the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ).

Results from the pre-intervention data showed that meditation-naive participants had significantly greater right amygdala activity in response to positive images than long-term meditators. While […]

August 28th, 2018|News|

Fewer learning errors after mindfulness training, brain’s hippocampus involved

Posted 04.17.2018 | by AMRA

Previous learning sometimes interferes with our ability to learn new things. For example, when we memorize one poem and then another, we may mistakenly include words from the first poem when reciting the second. This problem is called proactive interference (PI). People may be able to reduce PI by focusing on the present while screening out competing thoughts and memories—in other words, by mindfulness.

Previous research suggests that reduced PI depends on activation of a brain structure known as the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays an important role in learning and memory, and helps us distinguish old learning from new. Prior research shows that mindfulness training can increase the size of the hippocampus. Greenberg et al. [Brain Imaging and Behavior] investigated whether mindfulness training reduces PI, and whether that reduction is associated with increases in hippocampal size.

The researchers randomly assigned 79 participants (70% female; average age = 27 years; 65% Caucasian) to a 4-week mindfulness-training program or a 4-week creative writing program. Of those, 67 participants were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) before and after training to assess hippocampal volume.

Both the mindfulness and creative writing programs were offered in four 1-hour group sessions using a web-based technology that enabled participants to see and communicate with instructors and fellow participants. The mindfulness program offered training in focused-attention and open monitoring meditation. Participants were asked to practice learned mindfulness skills on their own for 30 minutes five times a week. The creative writing participants wrote short essays in response to photos or texts, and were asked to write on their own for 30 minutes five times a week.

PI was assessed before and after training by […]

April 17th, 2018|News|

High schoolers practicing mindfulness have less emotional habituation, brain study shows

Posted 02.23.2018 | by AMRA

Event-related potentials (ERPs) are segments of brain waves occurring in response to stimuli. For example, when people with depression are shown happy faces, the amplitude of their ERPs 300 milliseconds later (the so-called “P3b” ERP) is smaller than in non-depressed people. Since mindfulness encourages openness to emotions, mindfulness may enhance P3b responding to emotional stimuli and perhaps play a role in reducing or preventing depressive symptoms.

In a pioneering study of adolescent brain function and school mindfulness programs, Sanger el al. [Developmental Science] tested whether a high school mindfulness-training program could affect the size of healthy students’ P3b responses to happy and sad faces, and whether it improved their wellbeing relative to a control group.

The researchers assigned 40 students (16-18 years old) to mindfulness training or a waitlist control. Assignment was not random. Volunteers from two secondary schools were assigned to mindfulness training, and volunteers from two other secondary schools were assigned to the waitlist control. Control volunteers were slightly older and more likely to be male.

Participants completed the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) along with measures of stress, wellbeing, and empathy, both before and after training. Schoolteachers taught the mindfulness practices in eight 50-minute classes. Curriculum topics included “Taming the Animal Mind, “Being Here and Now,” “Moving Mindfully,” and “Befriending the Difficult.”

Before and after training, students were shown pictures of faces with varying expressions while an EEG measured their P3bs. Most of the faces shown were neutral, but 20% were happy or sad. Participants were instructed to press a space bar whenever they saw a happy or sad face.

Mindfulness levels did not increase over time, nor did they differ between the mindfulness […]

February 23rd, 2018|News|

Two weeks of mindfulness training changes brain waves of depression

Posted 11.28.2017 | by AMRA

Are there biological markers for depression that continue to exist even when the depressive symptoms go away? One possible candidate for such a marker is an electroencephalographic (EEG) waveform called error related negativity (ERN).

ERN is a sharp negative wave that occurs whenever people make a mistake while performing a task. The waveform begins at the start of the error and peaks shortly thereafter. ERNs occur even when people are not consciously aware of having made a mistake.

In healthy individuals, larger ERNs are associated with better executive and attentional control and enhanced self-regulation. People with depression, however, typically have smaller ERNs. When their depressive symptoms improve with treatment, their ERNs continue to be smaller than those of healthy individuals. This raises the possibility that smaller ERNs reflect an underlying biological vulnerability to depression.

Fissler et al. [Cognitive and Affective Behavioral Neuroscience] sought to discover whether brief mindfulness training could help improve ERNs in people with chronic depression.

The researchers recruited a sample of 68 patients (average age = 39 years; 61% female) with histories of chronic or recurring major depression who were currently depressed. They also recruited a comparison sample of 25 healthy controls.

Participants had their EEGs recorded while performing a sustained attention task. A series of digits were displayed individually on a computer screen and participants were told to push the keyboard space bar whenever they saw the digits “0” through “2” and “4” through “9,” but to withhold responding whenever they saw a “3.” The researchers then recorded the total number of errors made to the number “3” and the average ERN magnitude when those errors were made.

Following the initial assessment, members of […]

November 28th, 2017|News|

Mindful children have more brain flexibility, imaging study shows

Posted 10.27.2017 | by AMRA

Meditation involves the processes of focusing attention, recognizing when the mind has wandered off, and re-establishing focus. Neuropsychologists tell us these processes are associated with three large-scale brain networks: a Default Mode Network (DMN) associated with mind-wandering, a Salience and Emotion Network (SEN) associated with present-centered awareness, and a Central Executive Network (CEN) that helps shift, restore, and maintain focus. When two or more networks change activity in a coordinated manner, they are said to be functionally connected.

Positive functional connectivity occurs when two networks increase or decrease activity in tandem. Negative functional connectivity occurs when increased activity in one network is matched by decreased activity in the other. The degree of functional connectivity between networks is usually averaged over time to yield a single measure. The problem with averaged measures is that they give the illusion that the functional connectivity between networks is static, when in fact, it is ever-changing and dynamic.

Marusak et al. [Behavioral Brain Research] studied both the average and the dynamic functional connectivity between these brain networks in children, as well as how these networks are related to childrens’ self-reported levels of mindfulness and mental health symptoms.

The researchers recruited an economically and racially diverse cohort of 42 children and adolescents (55% female, average age =10 years, age range = 6-17 years). Many of the children were at economic disadvantage and/or at risk for exposure to violence, abuse, and intensive medical treatment.

The participants completed self-report measures of mindfulness (using the Child and Adolescent Mindfulness Measure), anxiety and depression. The majority of participants (65%) exceeded the thresholds on these measures for pathological levels of anxiety and/or depression.

All participants underwent functional magnetic […]

October 27th, 2017|News|

Meditation generates compassion for other’s embarrassment

Posted 06.15.2017 | by AMRA

The social pain associated with rejection or embarrassment activates some of the same brain structures that are activated during the experience of physical pain. These brain structures are also activated when we witness someone else’s embarrassment. Feeling distressed over someone else’s embarrassment can cause us to focus on reducing our own distress rather than on responding compassionately to the other person. In this way, excessive empathic distress paradoxically decreases our ability to relate compassionately.

Can mindfulness reduce the magnitude of empathic distress caused by another’s social pain, thereby facilitating increased compassion? Laneri et al. [Human Brain Mapping] explored how both mindfulness meditation and long-term meditation practice affect the brain mechanisms associated with empathic distress in long-term meditators and matched controls.

The researchers recruited 32 long-term meditators (average age = 51 years, 63% male, average length of meditation practice = 17 years, meditation practice = Zen, Vipassana, or Mindfulness Meditation) and 19 matched meditation-naïve control participants. All of the participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while engaging in a task designed to elicit empathic distress at someone else’s embarrassment.

Half of the long-term meditators were randomly assigned to engage in mindfulness meditation for eight minutes immediately before participating in the fMRI-monitored task, while the other half were instructed to merely rest prior to the task. The meditation-naïve controls also merely rested prior to the task.

The empathy-for-embarrassment task involved viewing a set of embarrassing and neutral social situations presented on a computer screen in the form of drawings accompanied by brief descriptions. As an example, one of the embarrassing situations included the description, “You are at a post-office: you observe a women’s trouser ripping while she […]

June 15th, 2017|News|

Brain regions connect after mindfulness training

Posted 04.25.2017 | by AMRA

Mindfulness training has been shown to improve performance on behavioral measures of executive control including attention, working memory, emotional and cognitive control, and decision making. Research also suggests that a brain region known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) plays an important role in executive control, serving as the hub of an executive control brain network. The dlPFC has rich anatomical connections to other brain regions that are also thought to be involved in executive control. Does mindfulness training assist executive control by improving the way the dlPFC interrelates with these other brain regions?

One way to test this is by assessing resting state functional connectivity between the dlPFC and other brain regions. Resting state functional connectivity is a measure of how much different brain regions work in tandem. For example, when one region increases activity, other brain regions act in sync with it.

Taren et al. [Psychosomatic Medicine] tested whether mindfulness training increases the functional connectivity between the dlPFC and other executive control brain regions by comparing functional connectivity after either mindfulness training or relaxation training in a randomized, controlled study.

The researchers randomly assigned 35 unemployed, job-seeking adults (average age = 40; 57% male; 66% Caucasian) who reported high levels of stress to either an intensive 3-day residential mindfulness training, or an intensive 3-day residential relaxation training. Mindfulness training was a condensed version of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction that included body scanning, sitting, walking, and eating meditations, and mindful yoga. Relaxation training included resting while walking and stretching and didactic presentations, but did not include progressive muscle relaxation.

All participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) both at baseline and two weeks after training. The […]

April 25th, 2017|News|