Source: Psypost (published on March 23, 2021; by Beth Ellwood)

New research offers evidence that school-based mindfulness training can improve cognitive control among children. The study, published in Human Brain Mapping, found that an 8-week mindfulness training improved sustained attention among sixth graders, and these improvements were linked to neural plasticity.

Cognitive control allows goal-directed thought and behavior, helping people tune out distractions and focus their attention on specific tasks. As study authors Clemens C. C. Bauer and team say, these abilities are crucial for children’s performance in school.

“Coming from a medical background, I have witnessed that many of the mental health afflictions that affect adolescents and adults begin in early childhood,” said Bauer, an associate research scientist at the Whitfield-Gabrieli Lab at Northeastern University.

“Thus, we wanted to study if mindfulness on a grade-wide, school-based program could preserved cognitive performance, which has important implications for mental health and educational practices. This is a continuation of a previous study where we reported finding on the impact of this intervention on social–emotional outcomes of reduced stress and reduced negative affect (Bauer et al., 2019).”

“Indeed, the interaction between cognitive control and social–emotional functions were important aspects that we wanted to test in adolescent development because reduced cognitive control in emotional contexts in adolescence has been associated with risk-taking behaviors, mental disorders, mortality, and crime, whereas greater cognitive control has been linked to academic and professional success and overall well being,” Bauer explained.

While mindfulness training has been found to improve executive control among both adults and children, research has yet to fully uncover the neural basis for these benefits. Bauer and his colleagues propose that this mechanism likely involves the central executive network (CEN) and the default mode network (DMN). Increased activation of the CEN is seen during tasks that require focused attention, while increased activation of the DMN is seen during mind-wandering. Thus, the researchers say that a negative correlation between the two networks should support sustained attention.

To explore this, the researchers conducted an experimental study among a sample of 31 sixth graders with an average age of 11. The children were randomly assigned to either an 8-week mindfulness training or an 8-week computer coding training. The mindfulness training consisted of four 45-minute sessions each week and included the teaching of mindfulness strategies as well as in-class mindfulness exercises. The coding training served as an active control group, designed to mimic the engagement and the time commitment of the mindfulness training.

Before and after the intervention, all children completed the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART) to assess sustained attention and response inhibition. They also underwent MRI brain imaging scans.

While the two groups performed similarly on the sustained attention task at baseline, the mindfulness group outperformed the coding group on the SART post-intervention. Specifically, these children showed greater accuracy on the aspect of sustained attention. Furthermore, the coding group declined in accuracy after the intervention, while the mindfulness group did not.

When researchers compared the children’s task results to their brain scans, among both groups, greater accuracy on the sustained attention aspect of the SART was associated with a stronger negative correlation between the DMN and CEN. At post-intervention, this negative correlation between the two networks was higher among the mindfulness group, compared to the coding group. The coding group showed a decline in this negative correlation after the intervention.

Bauer and his team say that their study uncovered a neural mechanism that appears to be implicated in sustained attention among children. Further, their findings revealed that mindfulness training helps maintain this neural mechanism, while at the same time supporting sustained attention.

The findings indicate that “a mindfulness program can be administered as a part of sixth graders’ school schedule and that by doing so it will support the beneficial effects of mindfulness training on emotional resilience and cognitive control” and “that mindfulness preserves attention performance,” Bauer told PsyPost.

Given that studies suggest that younger children show a positive correlation between areas of the DMN and the CEN, Bauer and his colleagues suggest that this negative correlation may be something that develops as children age. “These studies converge to suggest that DMN–CEN relations mature through development from a positive correlation to a negative correlation, and that this maturation of DMN–CEN anticorrelation is associated with the growth of cognitive control,” the researchers report.

Moreover, the researchers found that changes in performance on the sustained attention task were positively correlated with changes in the DMN-right DLPFC anticorrelation — but only among the children in the mindfulness group. This offers compelling evidence of brain plasticity that coincides with the benefits of mindfulness training on sustained attention.

“I envision a future where mindfulness will be part of the school curriculum as is math or literature,” Bauer said.

The study, “Mindfulness training preserves sustained attention and resting state anticorrelation between default-mode network and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: A randomized controlled trial”, was authored by Clemens C. C. Bauer, Liron Rozenkrantz, Camila Caballero, Alfonso Nieto-Castanon, Ethan Scherer, Martin R. West, Michael Mrazek, Dawa T. Phillips, John D. E. Gabrieli, and Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli.