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Brain and immune changes in cancer survivors after mindfulness

Posted 01.19.2021 | by AMRA

Research shows that mindfulness practice can reduce pro-inflammatory biomarkers related to illness onset and disease progression. Little is known, however, about how meditation-induced changes in inflammation are connected to brain activity. Mindfulness training can reduce fear in response to threat by reducing activity in the amygdala. It can also increase or decrease response to various rewards by modifying activity in the ventral striatum. Fear reduction and reward enhancement are important aspects of how mindfulness facilitates well-being.

Dutcher et al. [Psychoneuroimmunology] studied whether meditation-induced changes in brain activity were correlated with changes in pro-inflammatory biomarkers among breast cancer survivors.

The researchers assigned 22 female breast cancer survivors who had completed primary treatment (average age = 47 years; 60% white) to a Mindfulness Awareness Practices program developed by the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Participants met in weekly 2-hour groups over 6 weeks. Class sessions included didactic material on mindfulness, relaxation, and mind-body relationships, and experiential practice with a variety of meditation techniques to cultivate positive emotions.

Participant blood was collected by venipuncture before and after intervention to quantify levels of two pro-inflammatory biomarkers, the cytokine Interleukin-6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP). Participants also underwent fMRI brain scans before and after intervention.

Participants engaged in two tasks while being scanned. The first task, intended to stimulate amygdala activity, was a threat reactivity task involving viewing images of threatening facial expressions interspersed with an emotionally neutral task. The second, intended to stimulate ventral striatum activity, was a reward reactivity task involving viewing positively emotionally-toned images of landscapes, sunsets, smiling faces interspersed with neutrally emotionally-toned images of common household objects.

Results showed the women reported significantly decreased depression (d=-0.57) and […]

January 19th, 2021|News|

Brain gray and white matter reorganize with focused meditation

Posted 09.23.2020 | by AMRA

Meditation practice reportedly affects the gray (cell bodies) and white matter (axons) of the brain. However, cross-sectional studies comparing meditators to non-meditators are inconclusive, while many longitudinal studies employ multiple meditation techniques. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the meditation practices responsible for specific brain changes.

Lenhart et al. [Behavior Brain Research] tested for brain changes in gray and white matter in meditation-naïve adults who completed a seven-week focused-attention meditation training.

The researchers studied 27 meditation-naïve adult Austrian participants (63% female; average age=43 years) who attended all fourteen 45-minute sessions of a seven-week focused-attention meditation training program. The program taught a breath-body-mind centered raja yoga method that involved elements of focused attention to breathing (pranayama) and retraction of the senses (pratyahara). The training also required 15-30 minutes of daily home practice.

Participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) before and after the training program. They also completed a pre- and post-training self-report assessment of anxiety symptoms. Gray matter volume changes were assessed using whole-brain voxel-based morphometry, and white matter integrity changes were assessed using fractional anisotropy.

Results showed significant gray matter volume increases in the anterior insula, inferior frontal gyrus, superior frontal gyrus, caudate nucleus, and right cerebellum after the intervention. Significant gray matter volume decreases were detected in inferior parietal lobe, superior and middle temporal gyri, inferior frontal gyrus, medial prefrontal cortex, parahippocampal gyrus, and posterior cingulate cortex.

White matter showed increased integrity in the right basal ganglia, right hippocampus, and supraventricular region after the intervention.

The sample had a significant decrease in anxiety after the intervention, and decreases in anxiety were significantly associated with gray matter volume changes in the right-mid cingulate cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, […]

September 23rd, 2020|News|

Mindful acceptance calms negative emotion and amygdala activity

Posted 03.17.2020 | by AMRA

Mindfulness-based interventions can alleviate pain and suffering in some individuals, but there are important questions about its mechanism of action. Mindfulness might work “top down” by helping us to think differently about the significance of our unpleasant experiences. Alternatively, it might work “bottom up” by preventing us from experiencing the unpleasantness of negative stimuli in the first place. Moreover, it is unclear whether formal meditation practice is essential in order for mindfulness to reduce suffering, or whether learning to adopt a nonjudgmental attitude might, in and of itself, be sufficient.

Kober et al. [Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience] sought to clarify how an attitude of mindful acceptance affects emotional and brain responses to unpleasant and painful stimuli. Study participants acted as their own controls, at times instructed to respond to sets of negative stimuli as they naturally would, and at times instructed to respond with mindful acceptance.

The researchers recruited a sample of 17 meditation naïve adults (71% male; average age = 32). Participants were presented with a series of unpleasant and neutral images on a computer screen, and researchers also applied a series of warm or painful heat stimuli to participants’ forearms. Participants were instructed on some stimulus trials to react as they naturally would in their daily life, and instructed on other stimulus trials to adopt an attitude of “accepting experience as it is” without judgment.

Instruction in mindful acceptance was brief, and participants articulated what they were doing on practice trials to assure their understanding of the instructions provided. Participants rated their emotional negativity on an eight-point scale after each stimulus presentation.

Brain activity was recorded by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) throughout […]

March 17th, 2020|News|

Opioid users reduce emotional cling to drug images after MBI

Posted 12.18.2019 | by AMRA

Over 15 million Americans report having an opioid use disorder, and opioid-related deaths currently exceed 45,000 per year. As people become addicted to opioids, they become more emotionally responsive to drug-related cues and less emotionally responsive to cues signaling the availability of naturally occurring rewards. Naturally occurring rewards include those that come from relationships, accomplishments, and aesthetic appreciation.

It is possible to measure this shift in cue responsiveness using an electroencephalogram (EEG). The Late Positive Potential (LPP) is an EEG wave that arises 400-800 milliseconds after a stimulus is presented. LPPs originate in the emotional processing centers of the brain and are down-regulated by the cognitive processing centers.

Opiate users show larger LPPs to drug-related cues than to natural reward cues. Moreover, larger LPPs in response to drug-related cues are associated with stronger drug-related cravings and an increased likelihood of opioid misuse. Interventions that reduce the salience of drug-related cues and restore the salience of natural reward cues can help in opioid abuse recovery.

Garland et al. [Science Advances] conducted four experiments to assess whether Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) could help opioid users reduce their emotional responsiveness to drug-related images (e.g., pills and pill bottles) and restore their responsiveness to images of naturally occurring rewards (e.g., social affiliation, natural beauty, sports victories). Emotional responsiveness was assessed using LPP magnitudes and participants’ subjective ratings of craving and positive affect.

The researchers randomly assigned three samples of middle-aged chronic prescription opioid users (total number of participants = 135; average opioid use duration = 10 years; 51% female; 84% Caucasian) to an 8-week Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) program or an 8-week support group control. The MORE program included training […]

November 18th, 2019|News|

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|