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Mindfulness Training Improves Brain Network Connectivity Efficiency in Older Adults with Sleep Difficulties (Study)

A study suggests that mindfulness training can not only improve mindfulness, but also make functional brain reconfiguration more efficient in older adults with sleep issues.

Mindfulness training enhanced measures of “mindfulness” (i.e. the quality or state of being conscious or aware) as well as functional brain connectivity patterns – relative to a control intervention.

Key Facts:

  • Mindfulness training increased self-reported mindfulness, especially the facet of observing inner experiences, in elderly participants.
  • Functional connectivity patterns between rest and a breath counting task became more similar after mindfulness training. This indicates more efficient brain reconfiguration to support mindfulness states.
  • Changes were found in connectivity of the executive control, default mode, and salience networks – involved in cognitive control, internal cognition, and switching between internal/external attention.
  • The active control group that underwent sleep education and exercise did not show the same improvements in mindfulness and brain function.

Source: Translational Psychiatry (2023)

Mindfulness Meditation: Emotional Regulation, Cognition, Sleep

Mindfulness meditation has become increasingly popular as a way to improve well-being.

It involves non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of present moment experiences.

Studies have suggested benefits of mindfulness-based interventions, including improving emotion regulation, cognition, and sleep.

To understand how mindfulness training generates these benefits, researchers have begun investigating the effects of mindfulness on brain activation.

Recent research found that functional connectivity patterns of the brain reflect how efficiently the brain reconfigures from resting state to different cognitive states.

The similarity of connectivity patterns during rest and task performance relates to general cognitive abilities.

This indicates the efficiency of transitioning between brain states supports cognitive functioning.

However, no studies have examined whether mindfulness training can improve the efficiency of functional reconfiguration in the brain.

Examining the Effect of Mindfulness on Brain Network Connections (Study)

In a new study published in Translational Psychiatry, researchers investigated changes in brain network connectivity patterns between rest and a breath counting task in elderly adults undergoing mindfulness training.

They compared the effects against an active control group that received sleep hygiene education.

This allowed them to assess mindfulness-specific improvements separate from general intervention effects.

The study involved healthy older adults aged 50-80 years who reported sleep difficulties.

Participants were randomized into either an 8-week mindfulness-based training program or a sleep hygiene education program.

Both programs involved 2-hour weekly sessions and daily at-home practice.

Participants underwent MRI scans while resting and performing a breath counting task before and after the 8-week interventions.

The breath counting task involved mindful attention on breathing while keeping count of each breath cycle.

Functional connectivity between different brain networks was compared between rest and task states to assess the efficiency of brain reconfiguration from rest to the mindfulness-related task.

Mindfulness measures were also collected using the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) which examines facets like acting with awareness, non-judging, and describing experiences.

Changes in mindfulness and functional connectivity patterns were compared between the two intervention groups.

Mindfulness vs. Sleep Hygiene in Older Adults: What did the study find?

The study found a combination of: (1) mindfulness improvements AND (2) brain functional connectivity becoming more efficient.

Mindfulness Improvements

Self-reported “mindfulness” improved after Mindfulness Training – this shouldn’t be too surprising.

The total FFMQ score increased from pre- to post-intervention across both groups.

However, the facet of “observing” inner experiences increased only in the mindfulness training group.

This suggests mindfulness practice specifically improved attentiveness to internal states.

The facet of “acting with awareness” also increased across both groups.

Brain Functional Connectivity Became More Efficient

The similarity of connectivity patterns between rest and task states increased in the mindfulness group after training.

This indicates more efficient brain reconfiguration to support the mindful state during breath counting.

In contrast, the active control group showed decreased similarity between rest and task connectivity patterns after their intervention.

Their brains likely used different connectivity configurations for rest and mindfulness task states.

Brain Networks: Executive Control, Default Mode, Salience

The increased rest-task connectivity similarity in the mindfulness group was observed in the executive control, default mode, and salience networks.

  • The default mode network is involved in internal cognition and mind wandering.
  • The salience network switches between internal and external attention.
  • The executive control network supports cognitive control.

These networks are thought to underlie key aspects of mindfulness like self-awareness, attention control, and reduced mind wandering.

More efficient connectivity patterns in these networks likely supported easier transitions into mindful states after mindfulness training.

No Direct Links Between Brain & Behavior Changes

Despite improvements in both mindfulness and brain function efficiency, the researchers did not find direct relationships between these changes.

In other words, people who had large increases in mindfulness scores did not automatically have bigger increases in brain functional connectivity alterations (e.g. enhanced efficiency).

There are various reasons for this including: the brain & behavior may change at different speeds over time after training and/or the study may have been underpowered – such that it may have needed more participants to detect links between mindfulness increases & brain changes.

Takeaway: Mindfulness Induces Neuroplasticity

This study provides evidence that mindfulness training can increase mindfulness and induce neuroplasticity in brain networks relevant for mindfulness practice.

The improved efficiency of functional brain reconfiguration suggests the participants’ intrinsic connectivity patterns became more optimized to enter mindful states after training.

The mindfulness group showed specific improvements compared to the active control group.

This indicates the changes were not simply due to general intervention effects like social contact or placebo.

Together, the results shed light on potential neural mechanisms supporting enhancements in mindfulness and mental health after mindfulness-based interventions.

With further research, understanding these mechanisms can inform optimization of mindfulness training programs and more targeted use for various disorders.

Evaluating changes in brain function could also provide neural markers to complement self-report measures in assessing mindfulness improvements.


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