meditation memory

Meditation goes digital in new clinical trial

Individualized program improves attention and memory in healthy young adults

June 3, 2019

Science Daily/University of California - San Francisco

Scientists at UC San Francisco have developed a personalized digital meditation training program that significantly improved attention and memory in healthy young adults -- a group already at the peak of brain health -- in just six weeks.

 

The intervention, called MediTrain, utilizes a closed-loop algorithm that tailors the length of the meditation sessions to the abilities of the participants, so they are not discouraged by their initial attempts to focus attention on their breath, a time-honored meditation technique.

 

Scientists tested the program in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial at UCSF with 59 participants between 18 and 35 years old. The results were published Monday, June 3, 2019, in Nature Human Behaviour.

 

The magnitude of the effects on attention and memory, which were unexpected for healthy young adults, were similar to what has been seen in previous studies of middle-aged adults after months of in-person training or intensive meditation retreats.

 

The app-based program, however, required just 20 to 30 minutes of cumulative practice each day, composed of many very short meditation periods. In the beginning, participants were prompted to pay attention to their breath for just 10 to 15 seconds at a time. As they improved over the six weeks, the application challenged them to increase the amount of time they could maintain focus, which averaged several minutes after six weeks.

 

"This is not like any meditation practice that exists, as far as we are aware," said senior author Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry and executive director of Neuroscape at UCSF. "We took an ancient experiential treatment of focused meditation, reformulated it and delivered it through a digital technology, and improved attention span in millennials, an age group that is intimately familiar with the digital world, but also faces multiple challenges to sustained attention."

 

MediTrain made some concessions to tradition. Before they began, participants listened to recorded meditation instructions from Jack Kornfield, PhD, a meditation teacher who co-founded Spirit Rock Meditation Center north of San Francisco, and an author on the study. Then, they used the techniques on their own, without spoken instruction and with their eyes closed.

 

But MediTrain had other digital features that aren't present in the traditional practice of breath meditation and that may have been the reason why it achieved such strong results over such a short period and with such a healthy population.

 

For one thing, it underscored the need to pay attention by requiring participants to regularly check in on how they were doing.

 

At the end of each brief meditation segment, participants were asked to indicate whether they had been able to pay continuous attention for the allotted time, pressing a button on the left side of an iPad screen if the answer was no, and a button on the right if the answer was yes. For those who said yes, the application adapted to a slightly longer meditation period; for those who said no, the period was shortened.

 

The researchers believe the participatory nature of the design was important.

 

"Not only do you learn how to maintain focus on your breath, but you are also required to introspect on how well you're able to do that," Gazzaley said, "We believe that's part of the active ingredient of this treatment."

 

MediTrain also gave everyone regular feedback, with progress reports during the training sessions, at the end of each day of training and at the end of each week.

 

The results were impressive. On their first day, participants could stay focused on their breath for an average of only 20 seconds. After 30 days of training, that rose to an average of six minutes.

 

This improvement, in turn, conferred better performance on other, much more complicated tasks that scientists use to assess sustained attention and working memory. Not only did the MediTrain participants perform more consistently on attention tests than the placebo group, the scientists also found a correlation between how long participants were able to focus on their breath and how consistently they performed on these tests. The MediTrain group also performed better than the placebo group on a test of working memory, measured after the intervention.

 

"We thought it was a long shot to see these types of improvements in a group this young and healthy," said David Ziegler, PhD, director of multimodal biosensing in the technology division at UCSF's Neuroscape, and the first author of the paper. "But it speaks to the power of the method."

 

Using electroencephalography (EEG) to record brain activity in a subset of the participants in each group, the researchers identified parts of the brain, particularly in the front, that altered their activity as participants learned to stabilize their attention with meditation training.

 

According to Ziegler, "These frontal brain areas, which are important for controlling attention, showed greater moment-to-moment consistency in their activity after the meditation training." They are also known to strengthen their activity when other areas of the brain called the "default mode network," that are associated with distracted thinking and self-preoccupation, get weaker. Deactivation in the default mode network is also associated with better performance on tasks that require focused attention.

 

The researchers said that MediTrain, which has been patented by the University of California, holds promise for a younger generation that is accustomed to digital devices but faces multiple challenges to sustained attention from heavy use of media and technology.

 

The breath meditation -- a seemingly simple, yet quite demanding task -- worked as well in cultivating sustained attention as other more intellectually and physically challenging training programs that have been developed at Neuroscape, a translational neuroscience center at UCSF engaged in technology creation and scientific research to better assess and optimize brain function for all people.

 

Its very simplicity may fill a particular need created by the frenetic pace of today's world.

 

"Many of us struggle with challenges to our attention, which seem to be exacerbated by modern technology," Gazzaley said. "What we've done here is flip this story around by creating and studying a digital delivery system that makes cognitive benefits of traditional focused attention meditation more personalized, accessible and deliverable."

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190603124705.htm

The Yogi masters were right -- meditation and breathing exercises can sharpen your mind

New research explains link between breath-focused meditation and attention and brain health

May 10, 2018

Science Daily/Trinity College Dublin

It has long been claimed by Yogis and Buddhists that meditation and ancient breath-focused practices, such as pranayama, strengthen our ability to focus on tasks. A new study explains for the first time the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention.

 

Breath-focused meditation and yogic breathing practices have numerous known cognitive benefits, including increased ability to focus, decreased mind wandering, improved arousal levels, more positive emotions, decreased emotional reactivity, along with many others. To date, however, no direct neurophysiological link between respiration and cognition has been suggested.

 

The research shows for the first time that breathing -- a key element of meditation and mindfulness practices -- directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline. This chemical messenger is released when we are challenged, curious, exercised, focused or emotionally aroused, and, if produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertiliser. The way we breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.

 

The study, carried out by researchers at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity, found that participants who focused well while undertaking a task that demanded a lot of attention had greater synchronisation between their breathing patterns and their attention, than those who had poor focus. The authors believe that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilise attention and boost brain health.

 

Michael Melnychuk, PhD candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity, and lead author of the study, explained: "Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind. In our study we looked for a neurophysiological link that could help explain these claims by measuring breathing, reaction time, and brain activity in a small area in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus, where noradrenaline is made. Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can't focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can't focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer."

 

"This study has shown that as you breathe in locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases. Put simply this means that our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimise your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronised."

 

The research provides deeper scientific understanding of the neurophysiological mechanisms which underlie ancient meditation practices. The findings were recently published in a paper entitled 'Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama' in the journal Psychophysiology. Further research could help with the development of non-pharmacological therapies for people with attention compromised conditions such as ADHD and traumatic brain injury and in supporting cognition in older people.

 

There are traditionally two types of breath-focused practices -- those that emphasise focus on breathing (mindfulness), and those that require breathing to be controlled (deep breathing practices such as pranayama). In cases when a person's attention is compromised, practices which emphasise concentration and focus, such as mindfulness, where the individual focuses on feeling the sensations of respiration but make no effort to control them, could possibly be most beneficial. In cases where a person's level of arousal is the cause of poor attention, for example drowsiness while driving, a pounding heart during an exam, or during a panic attack, it should be possible to alter the level of arousal in the body by controlling breathing. Both of these techniques have been shown to be effective in both the short and the long term.

 

Ian Robertson, Co-Director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity and Principal Investigator of the study added: "Yogis and Buddhist practitioners have long considered the breath an especially suitable object for meditation. It is believed that by observing the breath, and regulating it in precise ways -- a practice known as pranayama -- changes in arousal, attention, and emotional control that can be of great benefit to the meditator are realised. Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centred practices and a steadiness of mind."

 

"Our findings could have particular implications for research into brain ageing. Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators. More 'youthful' brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks. Our research offers one possible reason for this -- using our breath to control one of the brain's natural chemical messengers, noradrenaline, which in the right 'dose' helps the brain grow new connections between cells. This study provides one more reason for everyone to boost the health of their brain using a whole range of activities ranging from aerobic exercise to mindfulness meditation."

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180510101254.htm

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