Neural Mechanisms of Mindfulness

Age Range:22 - 45
Start Date:July 3, 2017
End Date:April 2019
Contact:Todd S Braver, PhD

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Neural Mechanisms of Mindfulness: a Discordant Twin Design

This project focuses on understanding the cognitive and neural mechanisms by which
mindfulness training (MT) results in positive behavioral change and enhanced psychological
well-being. Participants will complete two sets of cognitive tasks during functional magnetic
resonance imaging (fMRI) and either be assigned to an MT intervention between scan sets or
after scan sets.

This project focuses on understanding the cognitive and neural mechanisms by which
mindfulness training (MT) results in positive behavioral change and enhanced psychological
well-being. Although MT is rapidly gaining in popularity as a life-style intervention, there
are still critical gaps in our understanding of its primary mechanism of action. Current
theoretical frameworks suggest that MT operates by improving attentional control, emotional
regulation, and self-awareness capabilities, potentially by targeting neuroplastic brain
mechanisms of executive control. This suggests an important role for cognitive neuroscience
research, but current work is still in its infancy, and subject to a number of
well-recognized methodological and conceptual limitations. The proposed project aims to
systematically remedy these limitations of prior MT research, by leveraging the unique
opportunities offered by the Human Connectome Project (HCP), and on-going NIH R01-funded
research. A key feature of the project is the use of a randomized, longitudinal discordant
twin design, in which monozygotic (MZ; identical) twin pairs will be recruited, with one
co-twin randomly assigned to the MT condition (mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR;
the most-validated and standardized form of MT instruction) and the other serving as a
(wait-list) control. Each co-twin will undergo extensive behavioral and MRI neuroimaging
assessments in a pre/post fashion, before and after the MT (or no-contact control)
intervention, to test for specific MT-related effects. The discordant twin design, though
never previously employed in an MT context, is widely recognized as one of the strongest for
causal inference, since it avoids many of the challenges and confounds associated with
inadequately matched control groups, and enables twin-pair focused analyses, which greatly
increase statistical power. The investigators will use this design to investigate
theoretically-focused hypotheses that stem from a guiding framework regarding the neural
mechanisms of cognitive control. Specifically, using a newly developed cognitive control task
battery, the investigator will test the counter-intuitive hypothesis that MT produces an
enhancement in the neural mechanism and circuits associated with reactive (rather than
proactive) control. An additional subset of MZ twin participants will undergo retesting with
the original HCP protocol, in order to provide a comprehensive assessment and comparison of
MT effect sizes across multiple domains of cognitive and brain function. Success in this
project will have high relevance for public health, by providing innovative experimental
tools and a novel theoretical framework from which to empirically evaluate and better
understand the potential impact of MT programs as lifestyle interventions for enhancing
psychological well-being in healthy populations.

Inclusion Criteria:

- monozygotic (MZ) or dizygotic (DZ) twins

- age range 22 to 45 years

- native English speaker

Exclusion Criteria:

- current psychiatric diagnosis

- taking psychoactive medication

- medical disorder that affects cognitive or motor function

- present or past head injury with documented neurological sequelae, and/or causing loss
of consciousness.

- Pregnancy

- Claustrophobia

- Metallic objects

- Heart rhythm abnormalities or pacemaker

- Premature birth (before 34 weeks)
We found this trial at
Saint Louis, Missouri 63110
Phone: 314-935-8181
Saint Louis, MO
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