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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|

Mindfulness lowers inflammation in cognitively impaired older adults

Posted 02.12.2020 | by AMRA

Approximately half of older adults diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) eventually progress to develop Alzheimer’s Disease. A diagnosis of MCI may provide a window of opportunity to slow, halt, or reverse further cognitive decline, and researchers are interested in novel interventions to help maintain cognitive functioning.

Mindfulness-based interventions may offer a means to potentially preserve cognitive function by lowering stress and inflammation and promoting neuroplasticity. Inflammation is associated with cognitive impairment, the arterial changes associated with vascular dementia, and the inter-neuronal plaque formation associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Ng et al. [Translational Psychiatry] conducted a randomized controlled pilot study investigating the effects of a mindfulness-based program on biomarkers of stress, inflammation, and neuroplasticity in older adults with MCI.

The researchers randomly assigned 55 older adults (average age = 71 years; 75% Female; 98% Singaporean Chinese) with MCI to Mindful Awareness Practice (MAP) or a health education control group. For the first three months, MAP and control participants attended 12, weekly, 1-hour sessions. For the subsequent 6-months, they attended once monthly 1 hour booster sessions.

MAP was modelled after Mindfulness-Based Elder Care, an adaptation of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for older adults with impairments in attention-span and difficulty in following instructions. The mindfulness program included mindful breathing, sensory mindfulness, body scanning, and mindful movement components.

The health education control covered topics such as sleep, diet, exercise, grief, stress, social support, and the management of common chronic diseases associated with aging.

Participants provided blood and saliva sample at baseline, 3 months, and 9 months. Researchers obtained blood biomarkers of inflammation (C-reactive protein, IL-6 and IL-1β), saliva biomarkers of stress (cortisol and DHEA-S), and a blood biomarker of neuroplasticity (BDNF, a protein […]

February 12th, 2020|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|

Psilocybin increases self-transcendence among meditators

Posted 05.15.2019 | by AMRA

There are certain similarities between the increased awareness associated with the practice of mindfulness and the expanded consciousness associated with the use of psychedelic substances. Both are capable of promoting states of self-transcendence in which the boundary between one’s self and the world is erased, leading to a boundless sense of connection with the universe.

Smigielski et al. [Neuroimage] experimentally tested the effects of psilocybin, a psychedelic mushroom plant derivative, on self-reported, neurological, and behavioral outcomes among experienced meditators attending a meditation retreat.

The researchers randomly assigned 38 experienced meditators (average meditation experience = 5,000 hours; 61% male; average age = 52 years) on a five-day Zen meditation retreat to a psilocybin or placebo control condition. On the morning of the fourth retreat day, participants were administered either psilocybin (315 μgs/kg) or a placebo (lactose), and continued on with the regular retreat schedule. The research participants and assessors were blinded to the study group assignment.

Six hours after psilocybin or placebo administration, participants completed a questionnaire measuring psychological factors such as “oceanic self-boundlessness,” “dread of ego dissolution,” visual and auditory hallucinations, synesthesia, and “vigilance reduction.”

On the day before and after the retreat, participants underwent brain imaging (fMRI) to measure functional connectivity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) while resting, while engaging in focused attention meditation, and while engaging in open awareness meditation. The DMN is a network of brain regions that operates collectively when a person is simply resting and “doing nothing.”

DMN activity has been implicated in self-referential thinking, maintaining a unitary sense of identity, and maintaining the self-other boundary. Functional connectivity is a measure of the degree to which different brain regions are operationally […]

May 14th, 2019|News|

Mindful people less distressed after social rejection, brain activity shows

Posted 07.26.2018 | by AMRA

Social rejection can be hurtful, but people differ in how distressed they become following rejection. People also vary in the strategies they use to reduce distress.

Some people subdue feelings of distress by employing a “top-down” strategy in which cognitive-related brain centers suppress the activity of emotion-related brain centers. This “top-down” strategy is taxing on cognitive resources, and if those resources become depleted, feelings of distress can re-emerge.

Other people employ “bottom-up” strategies such as mindfulness of negative emotions that do not require suppression by cognitive-related brain centers.

Martelli et al. [Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience] studied whether highly mindful people feel less distress when socially rejected, and examined whether cognitive- and emotion-related brain responses to rejection varied according to levels of mindfulness.

The researchers assessed dispositional mindfulness levels among 40 participants (54% male, average age = 19 years) using the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale. Participants then played a computerized Cyberball game while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Cyberball involves a pair of computer-generated characters playing virtual catch with the participant. Participants are misled into believing the computer-generated characters are avatars for real people playing the game. Initially, the computer-generated characters toss the ball between themselves and the participant equally, but in the final minute of play, they toss the ball only between themselves, effectively excluding the participant from the social interaction.

Approximately an hour after the game, participants completed a questionnaire measuring their level of social distress. Participants also completed a manipulation check that showed they believed they were playing Cyberball with live co-participants.

The neurobiology of distress and its suppression is complicated. Feelings of distress are associated with increased activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), […]

July 26th, 2018|News|

Mindful people transition more frequently between brain states

Posted 06.21.2018 | by AMRA

Mindful people have the generalized tendency to be aware of the present moment with an attitude of openness in day-to-day life. Researchers are interested in discovering whether mindful people exhibit a unique pattern of brain activity.

Lim et al. [NeuroImage] used brain imaging to explore the dynamic functional connectivity within and between brain networks of people with high versus low mindfulness levels. Functional connectivity is a measure of the degree to which different brain regions vary their activity together in synchrony. The researchers measured how the functional connections between different brain networks varied over time.

The researchers selected participants from a pool of 125 people who had previously completed a breath-counting task. For this task, participants counted their breaths from 1 to 9 repeatedly for twenty minutes while the researchers tracked how often they lost count. Participants who performed in the top third on this task were identified as highly mindful, while those in the lower third were designated as less mindful.

The high and low mindfulness participants were then invited back to the lab for functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) scans while in a resting state. Data were obtained for 21 high (average age=24 years; 38% male) and 18 low mindfulness participants (average age = 22 years; 28% male). Participants also completed the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, or FFMQ. The researchers studied three fMRI scan variables: the total time spent in different brain states, the number of transitions between states, and the average dwell time within each state.

There are two types of brain connectivity: within- and between-network connectivity. Within-network connectivity is the degree to which the components of a network synchronize their activity, while between-network […]

June 21st, 2018|News|

MBSR changes brain networks of opiate dependent patients

Posted 03.14.2018 | by AMRA

The United States is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, with over 42,000 opioid overdose related deaths in 2016. There is a clear need for innovative approaches to help deal with the problems of substance dependency and misuse. Mindfulness-based interventions are sometimes used as adjunctive treatments for substance use disorders, but little is known about how these interventions affect the brains of substance users.

Fahmy et al. [Addictive Behaviors] used structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to investigate brain changes in opiate dependent patients undergoing either treatment-as-usual (TAU), or treatment-as-usual plus Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

MRI data were analyzed to identify structural changes in the cellular networks connecting brain regions. The researchers limited their investigation to regions previously shown to be of interest in addiction and mindfulness research. They also looked at whether structural brain network changes were accompanied by meaningful changes in personality traits relevant to recovery and relapse.

The study followed 28 opiate dependent patients (average age = 30 years; 89% male) in a four-week inpatient substance treatment program in Cairo, Egypt. Half the participants were assigned to treatment as usual (TAU) and half to MBSR. Assignment was based on order of enrollment in the study and was not strictly random.

Nineteen participants completed their treatments and post-treatment evaluations. There was no difference in treatment dropout rates. TAU included medication and group cognitive behavioral therapy. The MBSR program was a culturally adopted Arabic-language version of MBSR. Participants completed the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory (FMI), self-reported measures of distress tolerance, sensation seeking, impulsivity, and addiction severity, and underwent MRI scanning before and after treatment.

MBSR participants showed significant strengthening in the brain networks connecting the prefrontal cortex […]

March 14th, 2018|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|

Older adult cognitive decline improves after mindfulness program

Posted 05.19.2016 | by AMRA


Older adults who complain of subjective cognitive decline (SCD) often appear normal in day-to-day functioning and on clinical assessment, but 60% of them eventually develop either mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s Disease. This makes older adults with SCD a prime target for interventions aimed at preventing or slowing cognitive decline.

Smart et al. [Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease] conducted a randomized controlled pilot study to test the effects of mindfulness training versus a psycho-educational control on measures of attention, brain structure and function, and self-reported cognitive complaints, mood, and mindfulness in adults with SCD.

A sample of 23 healthy older adults and 15 older adults with SCD (predominantly Caucasian men and women, average age = 70) were randomly assigned to either an 8-week mindfulness training based on MBSR that was tailored for older adults, or a 5-week program that provided education on memory and aging, situational factors that affect memory, and strategies to compensate for memory difficulties. Participants completed self-report measures of memory complaints, depression, and mindfulness (the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, or FFMQ).

They also completed an attentional capacity task that required them to be vigilant and respond or withhold responding to letters presented on a computer screen. An electroencephalogram (EEG) recorded the magnitude of their brain’s P3 evoked response potentials (ERPs) while performing this task. Higher P3 ERPs reflect increased attentional capacity and are known to decrease in amplitude with SCD. All these measures were obtained both before and after intervention. Structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was also included to detect changes in total brain volume from pre- to post- intervention.

Adults with SCD reported a greater number of subjective memory complaints and had a […]

May 19th, 2016|News|

Brain imaging study of adolescents links cortical changes and mindfulness

Posted 08.25.2015 | by AMRA


Adolescence is a time of rapid growth in young people’s capacity to self-regulate their emotions and maintain focus on goals, as well as a time of rapid brain development. In a longitudinal study, Friedel et al. [Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience] explored the relationship between changes in brain areas previously linked to mindfulness and the development of a tendency to be mindful of experience (dispositional mindfulness) in adolescents.

The brain regions of interest included the prefrontal cortex (an area involved in goal directed behavior and emotional regulation) and the insula (an area involved in the awareness of internal bodily states). As adolescents mature, the gray matter in their cerebral cortexes tends to thin out as neurons are selectively pruned and circuits become more efficient. The researchers predicted that a higher degree of cortical thinning would correlate with higher levels of dispositional mindfulness.

The researchers analyzed the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of 82 male and female adolescents who, as part of a larger study, underwent repeated scans at ages 16 and 19, and completed the Mindfulness Attention and Awareness Scale (MAAS) at age 19. The participants were also assessed on measures of temperament, emotional regulation, and intelligence.

Dispositional mindfulness was positively correlated with self-report measures of cognitive reappraisal, attention, and inhibitory control, and negatively correlated with measures of frustration, aggression, and depressed mood. The researchers analyzed possible relationships between cortical thinning and dispositional mindfulness in twenty different regions of the prefrontal and insular cortex. Contrary to expectation, prefrontal cortical thinning was unrelated to dispositional mindfulness — although prefrontal thinning was related to IQ.

There was, however, a significant correlation between a lesser degree of left anterior insular […]

August 25th, 2015|News|