Posts Tagged ‘MRI’

Compassion Meditation

March 26, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.

In 2007 Prof. Richardson’s group recruited forty-one volunteers for a study that would teach a technique to improve well-being. Volunteers were randomly divided into two groups: a compassion meditation group and a cognitive reappraisal group. The compassion meditation group was told to begin by visualizing a loved one—specifically, a loved one at a time in her life when she was suffering. With this image clearly in mind, they next concentrated on the wish that her suffering end, silently repeating a phrase such as “May you be free from suffering; may you experience joy and ease” to help them focus on the task. They were to try to feel the compassion emotionally and not to simply think about it cognitively. After doing this for a loved one, to expand the circle of compassion little by little, to yourself, then to someone you recognize but do not really know, then perhaps a neighbor or a person who works in the same building as you but whose life you know little or nothing about, then to a difficult person (someone who pushes your buttons and makes you angry), and finally to all of humankind. Using an online instructional program, this group practiced compassion meditation thirty minutes a day for two weeks.

Participants in the cognitive reappraisal group also began by visualizing the suffering of someone they love but were told to “reframe” the suffering. Reframing is a technique in which you adopt different beliefs about the causes of your behavior or of the circumstances of your life. In this case, you see that suffering might not be as extreme as other forms of suffering and that it could end up okay, or you focus on the fact that there are huge differences in the magnitude and severity of adversity. They were further taught to not attribute negative things to stable qualities in themselves but to see that suffering can occur as a result of external circumstances. For instance, the reason someone might be unable to find a life partner is not because of anything inherent in himself, but because his work keeps him from getting out and meeting people—the latter being something we can control and that we can change. The cognitive reappraisal group also received their instruction online, also for thirty minutes a day for two weeks.

Before the training began brain scans were performed of all participants. While a participant was lying in the MRI tube, pictures of human suffering were presented, such as a child who had been badly burned or a family in a horrific car crash. The researchers focused on the amygdala, which is known to be involved in feelings of distress. Perhaps counterintuitively, they predicted that after compassion training, this region would not be as active in response to images of suffering. The reason is that activity in the amygdala is associated with distress. Feeling distress interferes with the desire to help—the hallmark of compassion—because if you are in pain yourself, you have little reserve for others’ pain. In addition, they predicted that the prefrontal cortex would become more activated because, as the site of higher-order cognitive functions, it holds within its intricate circuitry the neuronal representation of the goals of compassion training—to alleviate suffering in others.

At the end of the two weeks of training, they again recorded brain activity with the fMRI while the volunteers looked at images of suffering. Those who had undergone training in compassion meditation showed striking changes in brain function, particularly in the amygdala: Participants in the compassion group tended to show less activation there in response to the images of suffering after the compassion-meditation training than they did before training. Might this be a habituation effect, a lab version of “compassion fatigue” people feel when they see one human tragedy after another? Not according to the control group, the people who underwent training in cognitive appraisal, amygdala activity in response to images of suffering was just as high as before their training.

The decrease in amygdala activation after compassion training had real-world effects, also. After their two weeks of training, each participant played an economic decision-making game designed to measure altruistic behavior. One might expect that someone who is not feeling much distress—as shown by low amygdala activity—in response to someone else’s “suffering” would not be moved to alleviate that suffering. But the opposite was the case. Participants who had undergone training in compassion meditation, and whose amygdala acuity in response to images of suffering had decreased, were more more like to fork over some money. On average, these folks forked over 38% more money that those who had undergone cognitive reappraisal training.

The conclusions regarding compassion meditation were:
it nudged practitioners toward the Positive end of the Outlook dimension
it strengthened connections between the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions important for empathy
Compassion meditation also likely facilitates Social Intuition.

The Outlook Brain

March 19, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.

It was discovered in 1982 that greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex underlies positive emotions, while greater activity in the right prefrontal cortex is associated with negative emotions. Early research was spent trying to identify the specific aspects of positive emotion that are lacking in people suffering from depression. Depressed people have little drive to accomplish goals. Sometimes they do not even notice, let alone perk up, when they encounter something novel, the way other people notice a new batch of flowers in a neighbor’s yard or a new coffee bar that just opened down the street. They also lack persistence. Many depressed people are aware that they have plans and to-do lists, but they lack the tenacity required to carry them out.

Depressed people do respond positively to humorous film clips. They report as much positive emotion in response to these clips as non depressed participants, so they are able to experience joy. They key difference between depressed and healthy people is how well they can sustain positive emotion, as opposed to how much they feel. So they feel the positive emotion but do not sustain it.

Prof Richardson and his staff conducted a study with twenty-seven people suffering from clinical depression and nineteen healthy volunteers. The goal was to measure brain activity while people looked at emotionally evocative pictures projected onto the ceiling of an MRI tube. All the pictures depicted something joyous, or at least something designed to bring a faint smile to the lips—children playing and clearly enjoying themselves, adults dancing, people eating food that looked good enough to make a mere observer salivate.

For each image the volunteers got one of two instructions: either to simply view the pictures as they normally would, with no attempt to modify their emotional response, or to try to enhance and sustain the positive emotion the picture induced for as long as possible (or up to 20 seconds) after the image vanished from the screen.

A clear pattern emerged from the data on all volunteers, depressed and healthy. When the volunteers first saw the pictures depicting happy situations, activation in what we think of as the brain’s reward circuit shot up. This circuit is centered on a region in the ventral striatum, which is located below the cortical surface in the middle of the brain and has been shown in other studies to become active when people anticipate receiving rewarding or pleasurable stimuli. What becomes active during such experiences is a cluster of neurons within the ventral striatum called the nucleus accumbens, a region critical for motivation and generating a sense of reward. It also happens to be packed with neurons that either release or capture the neurotransmitter dopamine, which plays a role in positive emotion, motivation, and desire; and endogenous opiates, which provide the famous runner’s high. Levels of activity in the nucleus accumbens were similar in depressed and non depressed volunteers looking at the smile-inducing pictures. Everyone was able to feel an initial uptick of sympathetic joy, but this did not last. Although healthy people were able to maintain an emotional high for the entire session, in depressed patients the positive feeling evaporated within minutes.

Prof. Davidson concludes, “These findings indicate that activity in the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex underly the ability to sustain positive emotion. The greater the activity in the nucleus accumbens—activity sustained by signals from the prefrontal cortex—the further toward the Positive end of the Outlook dimension on which someone falls. Lower activity in this region underlies a Negative outlook.

The Brain Basis of Emotional Style

March 18, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) has revealed that the more white matter (axons that connect one neuron to another) lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the more resilient that person is. Signals from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, and from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex determine how quickly the brain will recover from upsetting evidence. But we know that the brain is fully able to increase connections between regions. In later posts it will be explained what you can do for these particular prefrontal-to-amygdala connections. It is eminently possible to raise one’s baseline activity in the left prefrontal cortex. How to do so will be explained in subsequent posts. Along the two extremes of the Resilience continuum people who are slow to recover, and are having great difficult bouncing back from adversity, have fewer signals traveling from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala. Those who are fast to recover from adversity and are extremely resilient show strong activation of the left prefrontal cortex in response to setbacks and have strong connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. By damping down the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex is able to quiet signals associated with negative emotions, enabling the brain to plan and active effectively without being distracted by negative emotion, in another words a high degree of resilience.

Timothy was a high-functioning autistic boy. His extremes of being puzzled and having low social intuition reflected clear differences in brain activity and connectivity. Although he was very intelligent and able to understand language and speak, his speech was quite monotonous and lacked the modulations called intonation contours—the stresses and changes in pitch, tone, and pacing that convey emotion. For example, when volume and pitch both increase, you can be pretty sure that your interlocutor is angry. When pace slows, volume decreases, and pitch flattens, the speaker is likely sad. Timothy’s voice sounded like a robot’s. From studies of children, adolescents like Timothy, Prof. Davidson concludes that the lack of social intuition and the resulting failure to grasp what is socially appropriate comes with low levels of activation in the fusiform and high levels of activation in the amygdala.

Oxytocin is a molecule that reduces activation in the amygdala. When oxytocin is spritzed into the noses of people, which allows it to go directly to the brain, it reduces activation in the amygdala. This suggests that quieting the amygdala is the mechanism by which oxytocin induces feelings of commitment and attachment, and quieting the amygdala by other means accomplishes the same ends, including laying the groundwork for the Socially Intuitive brain.

The ability to distinguish a familiar from an unfamiliar context comes from the hippocampus. The hippocampus is famous for its role in processing memories: It seems to act as a holding pen for short-term memories, getting some of them ready for transfer to long-term storage. In a recent study of rhesus monkey, it was found that the anterior hippocampus, the portion closest to the amygdala, is also involved in regulating behavioral inhibition in response to different contexts. People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder often have abnormal hippocampal function. PTSD can be thought of as a disorder of disrupted context. The anxiety and terror that people with PTSD feel is quite appropriate in certain contexts, such as a battleground, but the problem is that they experience these feelings in non traumatic contexts.

Prof Davidson writes, “Differences in the strength of the connections between the hippocampus and other brain regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex, underlie difference in Sensitivity of Context. The hippocampus communicates regularly with the brain’s executive—function areas in the prefrontal cortex. Stronger connections from the hippocampus to these regions increase sensitivity to context, while weaker connections underlie insensitivity to context.

A key region of the brain for self-awareness is the insula, which is located between the temporal and frontal lobes. It contains what is called a viscerotopc map of the body. This means the visceral organs—heart, liver, colon, sexual organs, lungs, stomach, kidneys—are each mapped to a specific spot within the insula The insula serves as the brain’s monitoring station for everything below the neck and within the body. The insula also sends signals to the organs, instructing the heart to beat more quickly or for the lungs to inhale more rapidly. In addition to the insula, the somatosensory cortex is also involved in perceiving internal sensations. Higher insula activation is associated with greater awareness not only of physical sensations but also of emotions.

To summarize, individuals with high level-awareness of Self-Awareness have great activation in the insula, while those with low levels of Self-Awareness have decreased activation.

The Outlook Brain and the Attentive Brain will be discussed in subsequent posts.

Neuroplasticity

March 8, 2020

This post is based on portions of a book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney. There have been many previous healthymemory posts on this topic. Neuroplasticity refers to “the ability of the nervous system to respond to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, function, and connections.”

For many years the brain was thought of as a fixed organ, but neuroplasticity means brain plasticity. Brain structure is highly plastic, and like muscles in the body, the brain can be strengthened or weakened depending on how it is used. When cells in the brain are actively used, they transmit their messages more efficiently and form more connections with other cells. However, when brain cells are not stimulated, they die and are pruned away. The well-known adage, use it or lose it, applies to the brain in spades.

Since the mid-1990s, brain changes in professional musicians have been identified and related to the instruments they play. Researchers have found that in professional players of string instruments (violin, viola, cello, and bass) “the cortical representation of the digits of the left hand (the fingering hand) was larger” than in control subjects, whereas the right hand (which holds the bow and is not involved in fingering) did not display such differences. Ruger, Lindenberg, and Schlaud studying brain activity in string players as well as keyboard players and non musicians found differences in the structure of not just gray-matter motor areas, but also in the white-matter fibers that connect brain areas. In string players these were larger in the right hemisphere (controlling the left hand), but inn keyboard players they were large in both brain hemispheres Choi and his colleagues studied wind instrument players and found enlargement in areas of the brain responsible for lip movement. Moreover, the greater the number of years of musical training, the more pronounced the brain changes.

Research on mindfulness-based stress reduction, a practice related to the mindfulness meditation, is part of some traditional Eastern religions. Omar Singleton and his colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the brains of volunteers before and after an eight-week program of mindfulness-based stress reduction, “defined as the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment.” They found an increase in the size of certain brain regions that produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine, that are critically involved in regulating arousal, attention, mood, reward, and learning. Moreover, these volunteers scored higher on an assessment of psychological well-being after the eight-week program.

Each of us has, to some degree, the power to change the structure and function of our brain. As noted by well-known author Deepak Chopra, MD and Harvard neuroscientist Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D., “Neuroplasticity is better than mind over matter. It’s mind turning into matter as your thoughts create new neuronal growth. Activity is the key. By repeatedly activating specific areas of the brain, we can strengthen those areas.

There’s a Deep Neural Connection Between Gratitude, Giving and Values

January 2, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the titled of an article by Christina Karns in the Health & Science Section in the 25 December 2018 issue of the Washington Post.

Psychological research has found that taking time to be thankful has benefits for well-being. Not only does gratitude go along with more optimism, less anxiety and depression, and create goal attainment, but also is associated with fewer symptoms of illness and other physical benefits. Researchers have also found that making connections between the internal experience of gratitude and the external practice of altruism.

The author is a neuroscientist particularly interested in the brain regions and connections that support gratitude and altruism. To study the relationship between gratitude and altruism in the brain, the author and his colleagues first ask volunteers questions meant to test how frequently they feel thankful, and the degree to which they tend to care about the well-being of others. They used statistical analyses to assess the extent to which someone’s gratitude could predict their altruism. As has been previously found, the more grateful people tended to be more altruistic.

Being neuroscientists the next step was to explore about how these tendencies are reflected in the brain. Study participants performed a giving activity in an MRI scanner. They watched as the computer transferred real money to their own account or to the account of a local food bank. Sometimes they could choose whether to give or receive, but other times the transfers were like a mandatory tax, outside their control. They especially wanted to compare what happened in the brain when a participant received money as opposed to seeing money given to the charity instead.

The result was that the neural connection between gratitude and giving is very deep, both literally and figuratively. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region deep in the frontal love of the brain, is key to supporting both. This regions is wired up to be a hub for processing the value of risk and reward; it’s richly connected to even deeper brain regions that provide a kick of pleasurable neurochemicals in the right circumstances. It does abstract representations of the inner and outer world that help with complex reasoning, one’s representation of oneself and social processing. They also saw how differences in just how active this region was in various individuals.

They calculated a “pure altruism response” by comparing how active the reward regions of the brain were during “charity-gain” vs. “self-gain” situations. The participants identified as more grateful and more altruistic via the questionnaire had higher “pure altruism” scores. That is a stronger response in these reward regions of the brain when they saw the charity gaining money. It felt good for them to see the food bank do well.

Other studies have zeroed in on this same brain region and found that individual differences in self-reported “benevolence” were mirrored by participants’ brains’ response to charitable donations, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. So is this brain reward region the key to kindness?

To address this question the author randomly assigned study participants to one of two groups. For three weeks, one group wrote in their journals about gratitude, keeping track of the things they were thankful for The other group wrote about engaging topics from their lives that weren’t specific to gratitude.

Gratitude journaling seemed to work. Keeping a written account about gratitude led people to report experiencing more of the emotion. Other research also indicates that gratitude practice make people more supportive of others and improves relationships.

Study participants also exhibited a change in how their brains responded to giving. In the MRI scanner the group that practiced gratitude by journaling increased the “pure altruism” measure in the reward regions of the brain. Response to charity-gain increase more than those to self-gain.

Practicing gratitude shifted the value of giving in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It changed the exchange rate in the brain. Giving to charity become more valuable than receiving money oneself. After the brain calculated the exchange rate, you get paid in the neural currency of the reward, the delivery of neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and goal attainment.

So, in terms of the brain’s reward response, it really can be true that giving is better than receiving.

Meditation is another technique to enhance altruism. In particular, loving kindness meditation done by experienced Buddhist monks revealed impressive brain activity.
To learn more about loving kindness meditation enter “loving kindness meditation” into the search block of the healthy memory blog.

A Healthier Heart and a Sharper Mind

July 29, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Tara Bahrampour in the 23 July 2018 issue of the Washington Post. The article begins, “Research presented Wednesday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Chicago found that at-risk people whose blood pressure was kept lower than the recommended level had a significant reduction in mild cognitive impair (MCI), the precursor to dementia/

The trial compared two strategies for maintaining blood pressure for people with an average age of around 68 with increased cardiovascular risk. One group received the standard care strategy at the time targeting systolic blood pressure (taken when the heart beats) to below 140 millimeters of mercury. The other group received the same medication, but in higher doses, with a target blood pressure of 120 mm or less.

Memory tests were also administered to assess participants for probable dementia and early memory loss. The group receiving the intensive approach had a 19% lower rate of new cases of MCI.

A subgroup was also assessed through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), for white matter brain lesions that are associated with a higher risk of stroke, dementia and higher mortality. While both groups showed an increase in white matter lesions, the increase was significantly less in the intensive treatment group.

In the United States the rate of Alzheimer’s dementia is 10% for people 65 and older.

The researchers were excited with the results showing that the lowering of blood pressure with medication could also reduce the probability of dementia.

What the article does not mention is that blood pressure can be reduced without medication. Meditation can reduce blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen consumption. Research has also shown how meditation affected the body’s 40,000 genes and found that those who regularly meditated induced anti-oxidation and anti-inflammatory changes that counteracted the effects of stress on the body. There have been many healthymemory posts on meditation, the first being “The Relaxation Response.” The post provides instruction for getting the relaxation response, and benefits can be realized by doing this for 10 to 20 minutes once or twice a day.

Nor does the article mention that many have died with their brains full of the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles that are the defining characteristic of Alzheimer’s, but who never exhibited any behavioral or cognitive symptoms while they were living.

The reason offered for this fact is that these people had built up a cognitive reserve, presumably through certain types of cognitive activity. The healthy memory blog argues that growth mindsets, which by definition include Kahneman’s Type 2 processing, along with a healthy lifestyle and meditation, provide a means of building a cognitive reserve. These practices can lead to a more fulfilling life free of dementia. There are many, many healthymemoy blog posts on these topics.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How to Convert Terrorists

November 16, 2017

This post is based in part on a Feature Article in the19 August 2017 issue of the New Scientist titled, “Anatomy of terror: What makes normal people extremists?” by Peter Byrne. Anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflicts asks the question, “What makes someone prepared to die for an idea? He suggests that the answer comes in two parts. Jihadists fuse their individual identity with that of the group, and they adhere to “sacred values.” He writes that sacred values are values that cannot be abandoned or exchanged for material gain. They tend to be associated with strong emotions and are often religious in nature, but beliefs held by nationalists and secularists may earn the label too.

Atran argues that individuals in this state are best understood, not as rational actors but as “devoted actors.” “Once they’re locked in as a devoted actor, none of the classic interventions seem to work. However, there can be openings. Although a sacred value cannot be abandoned it can be reinterpreted. Atran relates the case of an imam he interviewed who had worked for ISIS as a recruiter, but had left because he disagreed with their definition of jihad. For him, but not for them, jihadism could accommodate persuasion by non-violent means. As long as alternative interpretations are seen as coming from inside the group, they can be persuasive within it. Atran is now advising the US, UK, and French governments on the dynamics of jihadist networks to help them deal with terrorism.

Atran says that the key to combating extremism lies in addressing its social roots, and intervening early before anyone becomes a “devoted actor.” Until then there are all sorts of things that can be done. He says that one of the most effective countermeasures is community engagement. High-school football and the scouts movement have been effective responses to antisocial behavior among the disenfranchised children of US immigrants, for example.

Perspectives need to be changed. Tania Singer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany thinks brain training could achieve similar effects. Neuroscientists have identified two pathways in the brain by which we relate to others. One mobilizes empathy and compassion, allowing us to share another person’s emotions. The second activates theory of mind, enabling us to see a situation from the other’s perspective. Her group recently completed a project called ReSource in which 300 volunteers spent nine months doing training first on mindfulness, and then on compassion and perspective training, and corresponding structural brain change were detectable in MRI scans.

Tania Singer notes that compassion evolved as part of an ancient nurturing instinct that is usually reserved for kin. To extend it to strangers, who may see the world differently from us, we need to add theory of mind. The full results from ReSource aren’t yet published, but Singer expects to see brain changes associated with perspective-taking training. She says that “only if you have both pathways working together in a coordinated fashion can you really move towards global cooperation.” By incorporating that training into school curricula, she suggests, we could build a more cohesive, cooperative society that is more resilient to extremism. To all of this, healthy memory say “Amen.’

Previous healthy memory posts have argued that had the prisoners held at Guantanomo been treated differently, an understanding could have been developed that would provide the basis for a new and more compelling narrative for these supposed terrorists. Once they had been converted, mindfulness training such as that in the ReSource program might have been highly effective.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Brain Changes After Socio-affective and Cognitive Training

November 13, 2017

This post is based on an article titled “Structural plasticity of the social brain: Differential change after socio-affective and cognitive mental training” by Sofie l Valk et al. in Science Advances 04 Oct 2017, Vol 3. no.10, e1700489., dos.org/cdw7.

The objective of this study was to investigate whether targeted mental training of different cognitive and social skills can induce specific changes in the brain. They employed a 9-month mental training intervention from a large sample of adults between 20 and 55 years of age. Training protocols specifically addressed three functional domains: mindfulness-based attention and interoception, socio-affective skills (compassion dealing with difficult emotions and prosocial intervention), and socio- cognitive skills (cognitive perspective-taking on self and others and metacognition).

MRI-based cortical thickness analyses were done to see if the different training modules indicated different changes in the brain.

Training of present-moment focused attention mostly led to increases in cortical thickness in prefrontal regions. Socio-affective training induced plasticity in frontoinsular regions. Socio-cognitive training included change in inferior frontal and lateral temporal cortices.

So module-specific structural brain changes correlated with training-induced behavioral improvements in the same individuals in domain-specific measures of attention, compassion, and cognitive perspective, respectively, and overlapped with task-relevant functional networks.

The longitudinal findings indicated structural plasticity in well-known socio-affective and socio-cognitive brain networks in healthy adults based on targeted daily mental practices.

The authors rightly concluded, “These findings could promote the development of evidence-based mental training interventions in clinical, educational, and corporate settings aimed at cultivating social intelligence, prosocial motivation, and cooperation.

These findings should be replicated with school age populations. If similar results are obtained, such training should be part of the appropriate public school curricula.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.