April Neuroscience Round-Up for Mindful Leaders

BL00 -  Workplace Neuroscience Roundup-Max-Quality

By The Mindful Leader Team

This month, we consider the potential therapeutic value of human sweat in treating anxiety, examine how teenagers can use mindfulness to combat mental health issues, compare the effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy versus cognitive behavioral therapy, explore the healing power of art, and look at a new spatial computing theory of working memory. We have summarized the main ideas and key takeaways below with links to the full articles.

Practitioner-supported mindfulness-based cognitive therapy aids depression    

A new study published in JAMA Psychiatry has found that treating mild to moderate depression through practitioner-supported, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy self-help (MBCT-SH) is both more effective and less costly than the standard approach to treatment, practitioner-supported cognitive behavioral therapy self-help (CBT-SH). In the study, Dr. Clara Strauss and colleagues randomly assigned 410 patients suffering from mild to moderate depression to receive either MBCT-SH or CBT-SH for sixteen weeks. They were given the appropriate workbook for their treatment approach and offered six support sessions with a professional practitioner. 

Key Points:

  • After 16 weeks of treatment, those who received practitioner-supported MBCT-SH reported a significantly greater reduction in depressive symptoms compared to those who were treated with practitioner-supported CBT-SH.
  • The probability of MBCT-SH being cost-effective compared to CBT-SH was rated at greater than 95%.
  • Adopting practitioner-supported MBCT-SH more routinely in the clinical setting would likely lead to higher patient recovery and less financial burden for patients and medical institutions.

Read the full article on Medical Xpress; Find the published study here.

Sniffing body odor is tested as an anxiety therapy    

During the European Congress of Psychiatry conference held last month, a team of Swedish researchers presented preliminary findings indicating that sweat might help with social anxiety. In their experiment, sweat was collected from volunteers as they watched either fearful movie scenes or ‘happy’ movie clips. Researchers then extracted the ‘chemo-signals’ from these samples, isolating the molecules in the sweat that function to communicate our emotional state and response. The researchers then tested what effect these chemo-signals would have when treating social anxiety in 48 women. The women, all of whom suffer from social anxiety, underwent two days of mindfulness therapy while simultaneously being exposed to one of three odors: the sweat from volunteers watching a fearful movie, the sweat from volunteers watching a happy movie, or clean air (this last group serving as the control). 

Key Points:

  • Women who were exposed to either body odor sample (fearful or happy) responded much better to the mindfulness treatment than those exposed only to clean air; Mindfulness therapy in addition to human body odor exposure reduced social anxiety by 39% as compared to only a 17% reduction from mindfulness therapy alone.
  • The type of emotional state (fear vs. happy) did not have an effect on the treatment outcome in this experiment. Follow-up studies are underway to investigate if specific emotional signals play a role in this process or if it is a more general effect elicited by human chemo-signals in sweat.
  • Although this is an early proof-of-concept study yet to be peer-reviewed and published, these findings suggest that smell is linked to the brain pathways of emotion in such a way that it can produce a calming effect and help with the treatment of mental health conditions.

Read the full article on BBC; Find the conference press release here.

Could mind games help cure teen depression? Brain imaging study by a Northeastern researcher shows promise  

Psychology professor Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli has devised an effective, non-invasive, and most importantly fun, treatment to help teenagers reduce depression, anxiety, and other disorders: mindfulness meditation guided by biofeedback and designed in the style of a game, of course. In her study, students aged 17 to 19 laid in fMRI machines and were directed to reduce activity in the default mode network (DMN), the region of the brain associated with rumination, depression, and anxiety. When participants successfully decreased activity in the DMN, the signal of a ball would start to move up towards a target circle. However, if activity began to increase in the DMN, the ball would drop. The trick to successfully “moving the ball with their mind” turned out to be simple — mindfulness meditation.

Key Points:

  • As soon as the teenage participants began to engage in mindfulness meditation, the default mode network in the brain became less active, thus increasing activity in the central executive network, the region associated with higher-order cognitive tasks and emotional regulation.
  • While this study used fMRI signals for neurofeedback, other biomarkers, like heart rate, could potentially be used for future interventions to prompt mindfulness meditation whenever someone is starting to slip into negative, ruminative thinking.
  • Importantly, this study reveals that mindfulness meditation is a valuable tool for helping teenagers combat the current mental health epidemic. Whitfield-Gabrieli points out that guided breathwork and meditation practices can be easily incorporated into class curricula, and given the benefits, there’s really no reason they shouldn’t be. 

Read the full article on Northeastern; Find the published study here

The Healing Powers of a Brain on Art     

In their new book titled Your Brain on Art: How the Art Transforms Us, co-authors Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross dive into the emerging field of neuroaesthetics to explore the powerful effect art, art-making, and sensory-rich environments have on our brains. Science has now revealed that art does more than just act as a creative outlet for expressing emotions; it directly shapes our neurochemical and physical responses in the body. Rhythmic, repetitive motions with the hands release feel-good chemicals in the brain, like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin, and work to alter brain wave activity, all of which makes us feel calmer. Throughout the book, Magsamen and Ross explore a variety of research and case studies that demonstrate how various aspects of art and art-making work to enhance well-being, restore mental health, heal the body, build community, and more. For instance, the book details therapists using dance to help Parkinson’s patients regain movement or music to activate memories in dementia patients. In both of these cases, rhythm and movement trigger a release of dopamine that can ignite previously cut-off pathways of the brain, such as coordination or language. 

Key Points:

  • Aesthetics, or the appreciation of beauty and art, impact pretty much every aspect of life, and the growing field of neuroaesthetics is revealing the science behind how engaging with and/or making art positively alters our thinking and behavior.
  • Exposure to the arts has been proven to aid in disease prevention and pain management, boost mental health, promote child development, improve life expectancy, and more.
  • According to the authors, curiosity is key to flourishing — and the arts are the perfect place to nurture and explore your sense of curiosity.

Read the full article on Johns Hopkins.

Spatial computing” enables flexible working memory  

New research published in Nature Connections aims to shed light on how the brain is able to maintain a consistent understanding of a generalized process even as the individual specifics continue to change. Consider, for example, the task of baking: you need to both remember general rules (how to set the oven temperature and time from the recipe) as well as the particular content in each instance (400 degrees for 45 minutes for roasted potatoes vs. 375 degrees for 10 minutes for cookies). The authors of the study propose a theory of spatial computing to explain how working memory is able to function in this manner and present experimental evidence in support of their concept. According to their theory, the brain creates a specific “patch” for each task, or rule, of working memory. Within the patch, when the rule becomes relevant, gamma waves will cause the neurons of the item that fits the rule to spike the most. In this way, the right neurons are selected and activated at the right times. When the researchers observed animals playing working memory games (remembering a set of images in a specific order), they found distinct neural signals for the rules and individual item information. Moreover, the rules information was organized spatially, and these spatial patterns remained consistent so long as the game rules were unchanged, even as the individual items changed. Lastly, they noted different brain wave patterns for when the brain was storing images versus “recalling” the right one. Collectively, the findings from their animal studies provide compelling evidence in support of a spatial computing theory of working memory.

Key Points:

  • Spatial “patches” of neurons form as the brain handles working memory tasks, and this allows for generalized memory representations that can be dynamically reshaped to fit current task demands (such as specific information or content). The right neurons can be activated at the right time within the patch when the rule for the specific task is activated.
  • These patches are constantly coming and going, and this contributes to the flexibility of the brain.

Read the full article on MIT; Find the published study here.


There are no comments yet. Be the first one to leave a comment!

Leave a comment