Author: Caitlin Hudac, PhD

Autism and the Neuroscience of Mindfulness

If you follow our feature, Mindful Monday, you know that we love sharing stories and tips on how to lessen the stress in your life. To better understand “how mindfulness works”, we went to our researchers and this is what they had to say:

Stress is a common experience among parents of all children, but life can be exceptionally challenging and stressful for parents of a child with autism. Although there are many strategies and therapeutic techniques that are designed to help parents manage stress, one strategy that has received considerable public and scientific support in recent years is mindfulness meditation, a secular form of meditation adapted from Buddhist meditation practices. Mindfulness meditation emphasizes paying attention to thoughts and feelings without judgment and allowing oneself to be present as events occur in the moment (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Often this is done by focusing on one’s own breathing or bodily sensations without dwelling on thoughts or feelings associated with things outside of the present moment. Although mindfulness takes training and practice, scientific studies of mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) interventions have shown that mindfulness practice leads to decreases in parenting stress, anxiety, and depression, and improvements in sleep, well-being, and life satisfaction (Conner & White 2014; Dynkens et al., 2014).

There is a difference between MBSR, which emphasizes on the individual, and “mindful parenting”(Duncan et al., 2009). Mindful parenting in part involves applying skills of mindfulness into the parent-child interaction, including listening with full attention, nonjudgmental acceptance of self and child, emotional awareness of self and child, self-regulation in the parenting relationship, and compassion for self and child. Parents are taught to think about and respond to day-to-day situations in a mindful way. For instance, rather than involuntarily reacting out of frustration to a child who is throwing a tantrum, mindfulness training provides parents with strategies to voluntarily acknowledge and let go of automatic feelings before responding to the situation.

Of course, MBSR and mindful parenting can be difficult – mindfulness takes training and practice – but science suggests that mindfulness meditation can lead to less stress and a better sense of well-being because it changes how the brain responds to stress. Stress drastically impacts how the deep parts of our brains function and can even change the structure of brain regions. One of these brain regions, the amygdala, is well known for processing stress and guiding how the body responds. For example, the amygdala may signal other parts of the body to either increase heart rate or release hormones, and the amygdala is part of a brain system that helps us to decide between “flight or fight” in a stressful situation. When a person is under chronic stress, the size of the amygdala increases (i.e., increasing grey matter), which is unhelpful for the stress system because the amygdala becomes overly responsive to negative events.

One theory is that the neurobiological response to stress improves in a stepwise fashion, such that as mindfulness training increases, the brain begins supporting more controlled ways of thinking about and coping with stress (Zeidan, 2015; Zeidan et al., 2011). From a brain perspective, responses to stress invoke two different systems: a “hot” system that is largely automatic and involves sensory and emotional processing (for example, the amygdala), and a “cold” system that involves cognitive processing (for example, the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex). In times of acute or chronic stress, the hot system is often overly responsive compared to the cold system. In order to reduce stress, the goal is to find a better balance between the systems by increasing cognitive control and regulation and reducing sensory and emotional processing. Mindfulness meditation appears to help some people strike that balance by focusing on observing and acknowledging the sensations and reactions of the hot system, then allowing the individual to respond in a controlled manner.

A recent study looked specifically at how different stress reduction interventions change the way the amygdala is connected to other brain regions (Taren et al., 2015). In this randomized clinical trial, adults completed a 3-day intensive training in either mindfulness practices or more general relaxation training. After the intervention, brain changes were only observed for the mindfulness group, such that there were reduced connections between the right amygdala and part of the anterior cingulate cortex that helps regulate emotion, mood, and anxiety. In other words, by using mindfulness practice, the amygdala is no longer overly responsive, but rather more appropriately responsive to stressful or negative events. In addition, the adults who were taught mindfulness techniques exhibited better stress-related health outcomes and were more likely to continue to use the techniques at home following the study.

To learn more about mindfulness training, keep a look out for The Autism Blog’s ongoing Mindful Monday series.

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Conner, C. M., & White, S. W. (2014). Stress in mothers of children with autism: Trait mindfulness as a protective factor. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders8(6), 617-624.

Duncan, L. G., Coatsworth, J. D., & Greenberg, M. T. (2009). A model of mindful parenting: Implications for parent–child relationships and prevention research. Clinical child and family psychology review, 12(3), 255-270.

Dykens, E. M., Fisher, M. H., Taylor, J. L., Lambert, W., & Miodrag, N. (2014). Reducing distress in mothers of children with autism and other disabilities: a randomized trial. Pediatrics134(2), e454-e463.

Kabat-Zinn, J. Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. 1994.

Taren, A. A., Gianaros, P. J., Greco, C. M., Lindsay, E. K., Fairgrieve, A., Brown, K. W., … & Bursley, J. K. (2015). Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, nsv066.

Zeidan, F. (2015). The Neurobiology of Mindfulness Meditation.

 

Zeidan, F., Martucci, K. T., Kraft, R. A., Gordon, N. S., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2011). Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation. The Journal of Neuroscience31(14), 5540-5548.

Biomarkers and Autism

Baby Brain 2When people ask what I do for a living, I tell them I study “baby brains”. People are usually startled and a bit tickled by this phrasing, and I often have to clarify that I mean the in vivo brains of healthy and wiggly infants. This phrase is mostly accurate – I am a developmental cognitive neuroscientist who uses cool machines to measure brain and behavioral responses of newborns and older infants. But for me, “baby brains” are a jumping off point for my personal and scientific curiosity about how people learn about the world. Our bodies and brains are constantly changing and evolving as we grow from infancy into toddlerhood, childhood, those rough adolescent years, and (hopefully gracefully) into adulthood. Some individuals do not grow at the same pace as their peers, and we often identify these children and adults with developmental disorders, such as autism. Read full post »