The endeavor to understand how mindfulness works will likely be advanced by using recently developed tools and theory within the nascent field of brain connectomics. The connectomic framework conceives of the brain’s functional and structural architecture as a complex, dynamic network. This network view of brain function partly arose from the lack of support for highly selective, modular regions instantiating specialized functions. That is, large meta-analyses consisting mostly of univariate fMRI analyses disconfirm that, for example, the amygdala is exclusively selective for fear processing. Indeed, more fruitful mechanistic knowledge of how neural systems function may emerge from delineating how different regions communicate functionally across a range of environments, and by identifying the underlying structural connections that constrain such functional dynamics.Their abstract, and a summary figure:
Although mindfulness meditation is known to provide a wealth of psychological benefits, the neural mechanisms involved in these effects remain to be well characterized. A central question is whether the observed benefits of mindfulness training derive from specific changes in the structural brain connectome that do not result from alternative forms of experimental intervention. Measures of whole-brain and node-level structural connectome changes induced by mindfulness training were compared with those induced by cognitive and physical fitness training within a large, multi-group intervention protocol (n = 86). Whole-brain analyses examined global graph-theoretical changes in structural network topology. A hypothesis-driven approach was taken to investigate connectivity changes within the insula, which was predicted here to mediate interoceptive awareness skills that have been shown to improve through mindfulness training. No global changes were observed in whole-brain network topology. However, node-level results confirmed a priori hypotheses, demonstrating significant increases in mean connection strength in right insula across all of its connections. Present findings suggest that mindfulness strengthens interoception, operationalized here as the mean insula connection strength within the overall connectome. This finding further elucidates the neural mechanisms of mindfulness meditation and motivates new perspectives about the unique benefits of mindfulness training compared to contemporary cognitive and physical fitness interventions.
Legend - Anatomical representation of tractography pathways between right insula and highly connected regions. Connections displayed (only corticocortical, here) comprised the top 80% connection strengths across all insula pathways. (A) Displays pre-training connections in right insula, which showed the greatest structural reorganization across mindfulness training. (B) Represents the same image as in (A) except at post-training.