A new study provides evidence that a school-based mindfulness intervention can reduce perceived stress and modulate activity in a brain region associated with responses to fear and stress. The findings have been published in Behavioral Neuroscience.
Clemens C.C. Bauer, the corresponding author of the study and a postdoctoral associate at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, told PsyPost that his clinical practice helped to inspire the current research.
“I was a practicing family doctor in Mexico and I repeatedly witnessed how the mind state of my patients was key to their well-being and recovery from illness,” he explained. “I believe that mind states proceed biological states more than previously thought.”
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brain activity of a subset of 40 sixth graders who were enrolled in a randomized clinical trial examining the effect of mindfulness training.
In the trial, 99 students were randomly assigned to either receive mindfulness training every day for eight week or receive lessons about computer coding. The mindfulness curriculum, created by the nonprofit program Calmer Choice, was designed to encourage students to pay attention to their breath, and to focus on the present moment rather than thoughts of the past or the future.
The researchers measured activity in the amygdala as the students looked at pictures of faces expressing different emotions. Prior to the intervention, they found that students who reported greater stress tended to display greater activation in the right amygdala when viewing fearful facial expressions.
After the intervention, the children who received mindfulness training reported feeling less stress in daily life. These children also exhibited reduced right amygdala activation in response to fearful faces and stronger amygdala connectivity with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
Students in the mindfulness training group also reported fewer negative feelings, such as sadness or anger, after the training.
“These findings provide the first evidence, at any age, of an amygdala neural mechanism related to stress reduction following mindfulness training, specifically a reduced magnitude of amygdala response to negative stimuli (and no relation to amygdala response to positive stimuli),” the researchers wrote in their study.
The study indicates that “mindfulness training recalibrates the automatic and unconscious response to fear, which leads to a ubiquitous resilience to stress,” Bauer told PsyPost. “It is easy to learn and can be practiced everywhere.”
“Like any other scientific study, these results are in need of replication in this age group as well as in other age groups. We still don’t know how long the effects of training last and how much practice is needed to create more long term changes. With larger studies, one can also address possible side effects that may come up during practice and possible alternatives or special approaches in vulnerable populations,” Bauer added.
The mindfulness curriculum used in the study sought to alter students’ mindsets about their stress and help them to refocus attention on the present moment. It did not include any spiritual or religious instruction.
“It is very important for the general public to understand that mindfulness training is a completely secular practice similar to basketball training or any other physical activity. In some circles, mindfulness has been linked to Eastern philosophies which may impede its upscaling into the general public school system so it would be nice that the term mindfulness starts to be treated as a secular term,” Bauer said.
The study, “Mindfulness Training Reduces Stress and Amygdala Reactivity to Fearful Faces in Middle-School Children“, was authored by Clemens C. C. Bauer, Camila Caballero, Ethan Scherer, Martin R. West, Michael D. Mrazek, Dawa T. Phillips, Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, and John D. E. Gabrieli.