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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|

Can meditation protect the aging brain?

Posted : 01.15.2015 | by AMRA


The human brain starts atrophying in the third decade of life, losing an average of 5% of its volume in each succeeding decade. Any technique that can slow or reverse that trajectory might have important benefits in terms of maintaining brain structural integrity across the lifespan. Luders et al. [Frontiers in Psychology] compared magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brains of long-term meditators and a control group to determine if the correlations between age and gray matter volume differed between groups. Gray matter is the part of the brain consisting primarily of neuronal cell bodies, dendrites, and glial cells, in contrast to cerebral white matter, which consists mostly of myelinated axons.

The authors measured the volume of whole-brain gray matter and specific region gray matter in the MRI scans of 50 meditators (mean age = 50) with an average of 19 years of Zen, Vipassana, or Shamatha meditation experience – practices similar to those used in mindfulness based interventions. They then compared the gray matter volumes of the meditators with those of 50 age-matched controls drawn from a MRI database of normal adults.

Age was significantly negatively correlated with whole brain gray matter volume for both controls (r = -0.77) and meditators (r = -0.58), but the slope was significantly steeper for controls, with meditators showing less of a relationship between age and atrophy. Differences between controls and meditators were apparent in the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes, the midbrain, and the cerebellum.

There are a range of possible explanations for these results including enhanced dendritic and synaptic growth or reduced stress-related degradation in meditators, and pre-existing differences between people who choose […]

January 15th, 2015|News|

Mothers’ mindfulness and infant brain development

Posted: 07.11.2014 | by AMRA


Previous studies have shown that expectant mothers’ anxiety and stress can adversely affect their children’s brain development. If this is so, is it possible that expectant mothers’ levels of mindfulness can have a positive, protective effect on their children’s brain development?

van den Heuvel et al. [Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience] tested this possibility by assessing mindfulness (using a short form of the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory) and anxiety (using a symptom checklist) in 78 expectant mothers during the second trimester of pregnancy. Nine months after their infants were born, the research team assessed the infants’ auditory processing by measuring their brain’s electrical responsiveness to sounds, or “auditory evoked event related potentials” (ERPs) using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure this responsiveness.

The infants were presented with series of sounds: a frequently presented tone with a base frequency of 500 vibrations per second interspersed with less frequently presented sounds such as the sound of a door slamming or a dog barking. The researchers analyzed two waveform components of the infants’ brain responses to sounds: a “P150” component (an electrically positive component of an EEG wave occurring at approximately 150 milliseconds after the presentation of a sound) reflecting selective attention to a particular stimulus together with suppression of attention to other stimuli, and an “N250” component (an electrically negative component of an EEG wave occurring at approximately 250 milliseconds after the presentation of a sound) tied to turning one’s attention to a novel stimulus.

Mothers’ mindfulness during pregnancy was associated with significantly larger infant P150 wave amplitudes and significantly smaller infant N250 wave amplitudes. Maternal anxiety during pregnancy was associated with significantly larger infant N250 wave amplitudes. […]

July 11th, 2014|News|

Reversing Age-Related Brain Decline

Posted from archive: 11.21.2013 | by AMRA


The human brain shrinks an average of five percent per decade after age forty. Luders [Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences] reviews the evidence for meditation’s neuropreservative and/or neuroplastic effects on normal age-related brain degeneration. She summarizes the results from three cross-sectional studies that compared age-related brain changes in meditators and non-meditators.

Of the studies reviewed: study 1 found that long-term vipassana meditators showed a lesser decrease in right frontal cortical thickness with age compared to non-meditators; study 2 found that zen meditators showed a lesser decrease in total gray matter volume with age compared to non, meditators; and study 3 found that a mixed group of vipassana, zen and shamatha meditators showed a lesser decrease in fractional anisotropy (a measure of axonal number, density, diameter, coherence and myelination) in 17 out of 20 brain fiber tracts compared to non-meditators.

Luders concludes that these studies provide encouraging preliminary evidence that meditation may slow, stall, or even reverse age-related brain decline, but stresses the need for future studies that (1) replicate findings using larger samples, (2) expand the spectrum of cerebral measures, (3) employ longitudinal designs, ideally with random assignment, (4) include neurocognitive measures, (5) examine the comparative efficacy of different types of meditation, and (6) explore how differences in the length, frequency, and regularity of meditation practice and the number of years one has been practicing influence these observed brain changes.


Luders, E. (2013). Exploring age-related brain degeneration in meditation practitioners. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1307:82-88. [PMID: 23924195]

[Link to abstract]

January 24th, 2014|News|

Neurocognitive Impact of MBCT in Bipolar Patients

Posted from archive: 07.26.2013 | by AMRA


Ives-Deliperi et al. [Journal of Affective Disorders] compared 16 bipolar patients before and after MBCT with a wait-list control of 7 bipolar patients and a cohort of 10 untreated healthy controls. Participants were assessed for emotional and cognitive symptoms and underwent fMRIs while performing mindfulness meditation. The patient cohort consisted of bipolar I and bipolar 2 patients with only minimal or sub-threshold symptomatology.

Prior to MBCT, the bipolar participants exhibited higher anxiety and stress, poorer working memory, and lower medial prefrontal cortical (PFC) activity than healthy controls. After MBCT, bipolar patients exhibited decreased anxiety and improved mindfulness (as measured by the FFMQ), working memory, spatial memory, verbal fluency, and emotional regulation compared with wait-list controls.

In addition, the MBCT group exhibited increased activity in the medial PFC and the right posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) compared with wait-list controls and increased left anterior cingulate cortical (ACC) activity compared with healthy controls. Increased medial PFC function correlated significantly (r= .61) with improved FFMQ scores. The findings demonstrate MBCT’s positive impact on the core symptoms of emotional dysregulation and executive dysfunction in bipolar disorder.

Reference: Ives-Deliperi, V. L., Howells, F., Stein, D. J., Meintjes, E. M., & Horn, N. (2013). The effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in patients with bipolar disorder: A controlled functional MRI investigation. Journal of Affective Disorders, 150(3):1152-7. [PMID: 23790741]

[Link to abstract]

January 6th, 2014|News|

Findings from the 11th Scientific Conference of the UMASS Center for Mindfulness

Posted from archive: 05.14.2013 | by AMRA


Nearly 450 researchers, MBSR teachers, and clinicians assembled for the 11th Annual International Scientific Conference of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society this April in Norwood, Massachusetts. Presentations by Norman Farb, Ph.D., Wendy Hasenkamp, Ph.D., David Creswell, Ph.D., Eileen Luders, Ph.D. and David Vago, Ph.D. focused on the neuropsychological correlates of mindfulness. Each of the researchers presented data from past studies along with new findings from as yet unpublished work.

Norman Farb presented MRI data on two opposing neural systems: the interoceptive pathway where bodily awareness is represented, and the default network which is often associated with self, referential narrative awareness and mind wandering. He presented studies showing that MBSR training is associated with increased recruitment of the interoceptive awareness pathway along with increased connectivity of the posterior insula (a key component of that pathway) to the prefrontal cortex. This increased connectivity had both state and trait features.

Wendy Hasenkamp’s MRI research showed how different neural networks are deployed during different moments of focused meditation, depending on whether focus is established, the mind wanders off focus, the mind becomes aware of wandering, or the mind re-establishes its focus. She identified activity in the brain’s default network during mind wandering, activity in a neural salience network with awareness of mind wandering, and activity in a neural executive network for shifting and maintaining focus. More experienced meditators had increased resting-state functional connectivity between the right insula and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the bilateral inferior parietal lobe, suggesting increased functional connectivity within and between attentional networks. Experienced meditators also showed decreased ventromedial prefrontal activity while shifting […]

January 1st, 2014|News|

Brief Meditation Shifts Frontal Brain Asymmetry to Promote Mood Regulation

Posted from archive: 03.26.2013 | by AMRA


Keune et al. [Biological Psychology] studied the effects of mindfulness meditation on frontal EEG alpha wave asymmetry. It is generally held that relatively higher left frontal alpha power is associated with depression and avoidance motivation, whereas relatively higher right frontal alpha power is associated with approach motivation. While studies agree that mindfulness enhances relative right frontal alpha in healthy adults, the data for depressed adults is contradictory.

To clarify this, the authors measured frontal alpha asymmetry in 57 women with a history of recurrent depressive disorder. They recorded EEGs at baseline, after the induction of a sad mood, and after twenty minutes of either mindfulness meditation or a rumination challenge. In both the conditions, participants were told to focus on their breath, but one group received additional mindfulness instructions, while the other heard distracting instructions to ruminate, which they were told to try to ignore. Participants received no prior training in meditation.

In accord with previous studies, greater baseline left alpha power correlated with depressive symptoms, and greater baseline right alpha power correlated with positive mood. More importantly, mindfulness meditation shifted alpha activation toward the right and reduced negative affect, while there was no similar effect for the rumination challenge. The results support the theory that mindfulness shifts frontal asymmetry, promoting approach motivation and thereby facilitating mood regulation. The study was limited by nonrandom assignment to conditions.


Keune, P. M., Bostanov, V., Hautzinger, M., & Kotchoubey, B. (2013). Approaching dysphoric mood: State-effects of mindfulness meditation on frontal brain asymmetry. Biological Psychology, 93(1),105-13. [PMID: 23410762]

[Link to abstract]

December 29th, 2013|News|