Mindfulness Training Optimizes Brain Connectivity

Mindfulness improves brain connectivity linked to volitional attention shifting.

Posted Apr 02, 2016

Courtesy of University of Michigan
This fMRI scan illuminates brain regions where veterans with PTSD who trained in mindfulness saw the biggest increases in brain connectivity.
Source: Courtesy of University of Michigan

A new study has pinpointed how mindfulness training triggers changes in neural networks. These changes in brain connectivity allowed veterans who were “stuck” in a psychological rut of repetitive loop-like thinking and rumination learn how-to "turn off" their negative thoughts.

Mindfulness training typically involves learning how-to voluntary shift your attention from potentially negative “mind wandering” to a state of self-acceptance while focusing on immediate sensations (such as inhaling and exhaling) in the present tense. 

For this research, scientists from the University of Michigan Medical School and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System studied 23 combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. All of the veterans participated in weekly group therapy sessions, but only those who undertook mindfulness training showed specific brain connectivity improvements.

The April 2016 study, “Altered Default Mode Network (DMN) Resting State Functional Connectivity Following a Mindfulness-Based Exposure Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Combat Veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq,” was published in the journal Depression and Anxiety. The simple mindfulness technique used in this study was based on focusing one's attention and awareness to stay in-the-moment.

Other recent studies have found that mindfulness and meditation can be an effective PTSD treatment, especially for veterans or military personnel. For example, in January 2016, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “Meditation Reduces Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms.” This post was inspired by a study which found that Transcendental Meditation (TM) enabled active duty service members battling PTSD to reduce, or even eliminate, their use of psychotropic medications and to better control the often-debilitating symptoms of PTSD.

Mindfulness Training Optimizes Brain Connectivity

Before being taught the fundamentals of mindfulness training, each veteran in the new study underwent an fMRI brain scan while resting quietly and letting his mind wander. The brain scans illuminated various degrees of brain activity as different brain regions communicated with each other via neural networks.

Across the board, the initial brain scans showed extra activity in "fight-or-flight" brain regions involved in responding to threats or other outside stressors. The researchers identified brain activity as a sign of the repetitive loop-like thinking and hypervigilance towards imaginary threats, which is often observed in people with PTSD.

After mindfulness training, the veterans developed stronger connections between two other significant brain networks: one involved in guiding inner thoughts, and another involved in shifting and redirecting attention.

In a statement, Anthony King, Ph.D., a University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry researcher who led the new study in collaboration with VA psychologists, said,

"The brain findings suggest that mindfulness training may have helped the veterans develop more capacity to shift their attention and get themselves out of being "stuck" in painful cycles of thoughts.

We're hopeful that this brain signature shows the potential of mindfulness to be helpful for managing PTSD for people who might initially decline therapy involving trauma processing. We hope it may provide emotional regulation skills to help bring them to a place where they feel better able to process their traumas."

Overall, the group who participated in mindfulness training saw improvements in PTSD symptoms, whereas the control group did not. There is one important caveat. King emphasizes that people with PTSD should be cautious not to view mindfulness as a panacea for their symptoms. If you’re suffering from PTSD, you should seek guidance from professionals trained specifically in PTSD treatment.

"Mindfulness can help people cope with and manage their trauma memories, explore their patterns of avoidance when confronting reminders of their trauma, and better understand their reactions to their symptoms," King said. "It helps them feel more grounded, and to notice that even very painful memories have a beginning, a middle and an end—that they can become manageable and feel safer. It's hard work, but it can pay off."

Mindfulness Training Improves "Volitional Attention Shifting”

Viktoriya/Shutterstock
Source: Viktoriya/Shutterstock

At the start of the study, the fMRI scans of veterans with PTSD showed unusual brain activity. Even when they were asked to rest quietly and let their minds wander freely, the veterans had high levels of activity in brain networks that govern reactions to real or imagined threats or dangers. Additionally, the default mode network—which is involved in inwardly focused thinking that occurs when the mind is wandering—wasn’t active at the beginning of the study.

However, by the end of the mindfulness training course, the DMN was more active and showed increased connections to areas of the prefrontal cortex involved in executive function. Specific neurons in the prefrontal cortex plays an important role in what the researchers describe as "volitional attention shifting” which occurs when you purposefully shift the focus of your attention or decide to act on something. I call this subgroup of neurons the “volition switch.” 

The researchers found that the veterans who experience the most dramatic reduction in PTSD symptoms also had the largest increases in these brain connections. In a statement, King said,

"We were surprised by the findings, because there is thinking that segregation between the default mode network and the salience network is good. But now we are hopeful that this brain signature of increased connection to areas associated with volitional attention shifting at rest may be helpful for managing PTSD, and may help patients have more capacity to help themselves get out of being stuck in painful ruts of trauma memories and rumination."

Wikimedia Commons
Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in yellow. 
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Increased DMN connectivity with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DL-PFC) regions and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) regions were observed following mindfulness training. In fact, the combined amount of time someone spent in group therapy and practicing mindfulness was directly correlated to increases in the brain connectivity of the DL-PFC and dorsal ACC. This brain connectivity was correlated with improvements in PTSD avoidance and hyperarousal symptoms.

Conclusions: Mindfulness Meditation Shows Promise for Treating PTSD

The researchers conclude that increased connectivity between DMN and executive control regions following mindfulness training could underlie increased capacity for volitional shifting of attention in veterans with PTSD.

Although these findings focus on a specific subgroup, this research shows potential promise for people from all walks of life in the general population. That said, the small size of the group means that these new results are only the first step of exploration into the specific brain benefits of mindfulness training, King concluded. Stay tuned! 

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts, 

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