Improve Connectivity of Brain Areas Underlying Executive Cognitive Function with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Think of mindfulness practices as short routines or “gym” sessions that exercise your executive functions. Performed consistently, mindfulness practices strengthen your executive function muscles and help you to be more mindful when you need to be. “ – Casey Dixon
There has accumulated a large amount of research demonstrating that mindfulness has significant benefits for psychological, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. It even improves high level thinking known as executive function. Its positive effects are so widespread that it is difficult to find any other treatment of any kind with such broad beneficial effects on everything from thinking to mood and happiness to severe mental and physical illnesses. This raises the question of how mindfulness training could produce such widespread and varied benefits. One possibility is that mindfulness practice results in beneficial changes in the nervous system.
The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. In other words, mindfulness practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.
In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness Meditation Training and Executive Control Network Resting State Functional Connectivity: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5489372/ ), Taren and colleagues examine the effects of mindfulness training on the underlying brain systems responsible for high level thinking, executive function. They recruited “stressed unemployed job-seeking community adults” and randomly assigned them to participate in a 3-day residential retreat either of intensive mindfulness meditation training or of relaxation training. The meditation retreat was a condensed version of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that contains discussion, meditation, yoga, and body scan practices. The relaxation retreat called Health Enhancement through Relaxation (HER) included walking, stretching, and didactics performed in a relaxed manner. Before and after training the participants were measured for mindfulness and underwent brain scanning with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), while engaged in either meditation or relaxation respectively.
They found that following the retreat, in comparison to baseline and the relaxation group, the mindfulness group had increased functional connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and dorsal network consisting of the superior parietal lobule and supplementary eye field, and also increased functional connectivity with the ventral network consisting of the inferior frontal gyrus and the angular gyrus. These interconnected structures have been demonstrated to be important in high level, executive function, thinking. It’s quite striking that these changes in the brain can be produced by a relatively short-term, 3-day, mindfulness retreat.
Hence, mindfulness training appears to strengthen the connections between the brain structures that underly the highest levels of human thinking. These results suggest that intensive mindfulness training even over a relatively short period of time can produce neuroplastic changes in the brain that improve the sharing of information between these structures and these changes, in turn, produce improved thinking. This suggests the underlying neural mechanism by which mindfulness training improves thought processes.
So, improve connectivity of brain areas underlying executive cognitive function with mindfulness.
“The impact that mindfulness exerts on our brain is borne from routine: a slow, steady, and consistent reckoning of our realities, and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgmental, and less reactive. Just as playing the piano over and over again over time strengthens and supports brain networks involved with playing music, mindfulness over time can make the brain, and thus, us, more efficient regulators, with a penchant for pausing to respond to our worlds instead of mindlessly reacting.” – Jennifer Wolkin
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch
Taren, A. A., Gianaros, P. J., Greco, C. M., Lindsay, E. K., Fairgrieve, A., Brown, K. W., … Creswell, J. D. (2017). Mindfulness Meditation Training and Executive Control Network Resting State Functional Connectivity: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Psychosomatic Medicine, 79(6), 674–683. http://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000466
Mindfulness meditation training has been previously shown to enhance behavioral measures of executive control (e.g. attention, working memory, cognitive control), but the neural mechanisms underlying these improvements are largely unknown. Here, we test whether mindfulness training interventions foster executive control by strengthening functional connections between dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) – a hub of the executive control network – and frontoparietal regions that coordinate executive function.
Thirty-five adults with elevated levels of psychological distress participated in a 3 day RCT of intensive mindfulness meditation or relaxation training. Participants completed a resting state fMRI scan before and after the intervention. We tested whether mindfulness meditation training increased resting state functional connectivity (rsFC) between dlPFC and frontoparietal control network regions.
Left dlPFC showed increased connectivity to the right inferior frontal gyrus (T = 3.74), right middle frontal gyrus (T = 3.98), right supplementary eye field (T = 4.29), right parietal cortex (T = 4.44), and left middle temporal gyrus (T = 3.97; all p<0.05) following mindfulness training relative to the relaxation control. Right dlPFC showed increased connectivity to right middle frontal gyrus (T = 4.97, p < 0.05).
We report that mindfulness training increases rsFC between dlPFC and dorsal network (superior parietal lobule, supplementary eye field, MFG) and ventral network (right IFG, middle temporal/angular gyrus) regions. These findings extend previous work showing increased functional connectivity amongst brain regions associated with executive function during active meditation by identifying specific neural circuits in which rsFC is enhanced by a mindfulness intervention in individuals with high levels of psychological distress.