fMRI shows mindfulness therapy countering the brain effects of PTSD

Using functional MRI, researchers at the University of Michigan and the VA in Ann Arbor have shown that mindfulness training can increase resting-state functional connectivity in the brains of combat veterans suffering with PTSD.

What’s more, evaluating the fMR images alongside functional assessments of 23 male troops who developed PTSD in Iraq and Afghanistan, the researchers found that the increased connectivity did indeed correlate with symptom relief.

The team, led by U-of-M psychiatry researcher Anthony King, PhD, presents the findings of its small but intriguing study in the April edition of the journal Depression and Anxiety.

Mindfulness training involves guided practice in purposefully shifting attention from “mind wandering” to focused attentiveness toward sensations and other aspects of being “in the moment,” to paraphrase the authors.

King and colleagues compared results from 14 subjects who received a mindfulness-based intervention with a control group of nine PTSD patients who received other forms of therapy.

Functional assessments showed that that both groups had similar relief from PTSD symptoms.

However, the fMRI revealed significantly increased connectivity in brain regions associated with executive control in the mindfulness group over the control group.

Increased connectivity involving executive control regions following mindfulness training “could underlie increased capacity for volitional shifting of attention,” the authors write, adding that the increased connectivity observed in the imaging may point “to a potential therapeutic mechanism of mindfulness-based therapies.”

In a University of Michigan blog post, King says the findings suggest that mindfulness training “may have helped the veterans develop more capacity to shift their attention and get themselves out of being ‘stuck’ in painful cycles of thoughts. We’re hopeful that this brain signature shows the potential of mindfulness to be helpful for managing PTSD for people who might initially decline therapy involving trauma processing.”