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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|

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|

Pinpointing the unique impact of mindfulness meditation on pain

Posted 12.15.2015 | by AMRA

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Pain is a common and often complex medical complaint. Previous studies demonstrate the possible pain-reducing effects of mindfulness-based interventions, but little is known about how these interventions actually work. Is mindful awareness their “active ingredient,” or is it slowed breathing, or even just the expectancy of a benefit?

Zeidan et al. [The Journal of Neuroscience] compared the changes in pain sensitivity resulting from a genuine mindfulness intervention with the changes resulting from a sham mindfulness intervention and two other control conditions. Participants rated their subjective pain in response to an unpleasant heat stimulus while undergoing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). They also completed the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory prior to initial training and at the end of their final fMRI session.

A racially diverse cohort of 75 healthy, meditation-naive young adult men and women were randomly assigned to either mindfulness meditation, a sham mindfulness meditation, placebo conditioning, or listening to an audio book. Genuine mindfulness meditation training consisted of four 20-minute sessions involving a breath-focused sitting meditation along with didactic instruction in non-judgmental attention. Sham meditation training involved four 20-minute sessions of alleged “mindfulness meditation” that consisted of merely sitting upright and taking a deep breath every few minutes without any didactic instruction.

Placebo conditioning involved four 20-minute conditioning sessions in which an alleged “analgesic cream” (in actuality, only petrolatum jelly) was applied to the skin and participants were exposed to a series of heat stimuli that were covertly and progressively lowered in temperature over the course of the sessions. Control participants listen to four 20-minute audio recordings from a book.

In a separate final assessment session after training completion, all the participants underwent fMRI scanning while […]

December 15th, 2015|News|

Mindful awareness program offered to elite athletes on the USA cycling team

Posted 09.28.2015 | by AMRA

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Skilled athletes must retain focus and maintain bodily awareness while resisting distractions. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Haase et al. [Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience] explored whether a Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness, and Knowledge (mPEAK) intervention improved elite athletes’ bodily awareness and examined the underlying brain patterns associated with improved awareness.

Seven young adult, male members of the USA BMX cycling team underwent fMRI scans before and after participating in a 7-week mPEAK intervention. The intervention included traditional mindfulness practices along with didactic presentations on topics such as mindfulness, mind-wandering, self-compassion, and self-criticism. Athletes were assessed before and after training on measures of bodily awareness, emotional awareness, and mindfulness (FFMQ).

During fMRI scanning, athletes engaged in a computer-assisted attentional focus task while breathing through a mouthpiece that could variably restrict airflow making breathing more labored and effortful. At various times during the task they were given visual cues about the likelihood of future airflow restriction, so that the fMRI measured the brain changes associated with anticipating, experiencing, and recovering from restricted airflow.

Following mPEAK training, the athletes significantly improved their abilities to identify feelings (Cohen’s d = 1.1), self-regulate distress by attending to the body (Cohen’s d = 1.5), trust bodily sensations (Cohen’s d = 1.0), and describe emotions (Cohen’s d = 0.8).

Right insula and left anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) activation increased after mPEAK training during the time periods when athletes were anticipating restricted airflow. The magnitude of increased ACC activation during anticipation periods correlated with increases in the ability to describe emotions (ρ =.78).

There was also a negative association between increased insula activation during periods of recovery from restricted breathing and the ability […]

September 28th, 2015|News|

Does mindfulness reduce stress by altering brain function?

Posted 07.21.2015 | by AMRA

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Does mindfulness reduce stress by altering brain function? The amygdala—a small, almond-shaped structure located in the brain’s limbic system—is known to play a key role in the stress response. Previous research has shown that increased connectivity (a measure of the degree to which brain structures inter-coordinate) between the amygdala and other limbic and cortical structures is associated with greater stress levels.

In two separate studies, Taren et al. [Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience] investigated how the amygdala’s resting connectivity with nearby brain structures correlates with stress, and whether that connectivity changed in response to a mindfulness-based intervention (MBI). In doing so, the researchers aimed to identify one of the main brain pathways underlying the effect of mindfulness practice on stress levels. In an initial study, 130 healthy men and women self-reported perceived stress levels and participated in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess the resting functional connectivity between the amygdala and nearby brain structures.

In a second randomized, single-blind study using an active control group, 35 unemployed adults with moderate-to-high levels of perceived stress were assigned to either a three-day intensive residential mindfulness retreat modeled after MBSR which included the body scan, sitting and walking meditation, and mindful eating and yoga, or a three day intensive relaxation retreat which included walking, stretching, and didactics emphasizing relaxation rather than mindfulness.

Amygdala connectivity was assessed by fMRI before and after each intervention. Four months later, hair samples were taken and assayed for stress hormone (cortisone and cortisol) levels over the post-intervention period. This study demonstrated that participants with higher levels of perceived stress had significantly greater degrees of connectivity between the right side of the […]

July 21st, 2015|News|