Mindfulness monthly: bipolar disorder, time perception, older people, and eating disorders

A Buddhist monks blesses tourists on a beach in ThailandEvery month I’m going to round up the latest research about the potential applications of mindfulness. I’ll pick out only four or five nuggets (writing in detail about one, and writing a very brief summary of the others) but link to the awesome Mindfulness Research Monthly newsletter, which provides a much more comprehensive review of the field than I could ever do.

The publishers of journals don’t make this sort of thing easy – they lock the full details of research behind paywalls, publishing only a summary or abstract. So for example if you want to read more about the fascinating and important research into the treatment of bipolar disorder with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, you’ll have to pay the publisher Elsevier $31.50. Apart from the ideal that the fruits of medical research should be made available to everyone for the greater wellbeing of all humankind, we may already have paid for this research once – through our taxes which fund research in public institutions like universities. Fortunately, the open access publishing movement has been gaining a foothold over the past few years, so perhaps one day soon it will be easier for the public (and indeed clinicians) to judge the benefits and risks of different treatments for themselves with all the information in front of them.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a debilitating condition that used to be known as “manic depression” because it is characterised by alternating bouts of mania and depression. It will affect about four out of every hundred people at some point in their lives.

In this study, 17 patients with bipolar disorder who took a course of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) experienced reduced anxiety levels and significant improvements in emotional regulation, memory and verbal fluency compared with seven patients on a waiting list for the therapy.

The research compared patients with 10 healthy controls, giving them psychometric tests before and after the treatment. It also looked for changes in their brains by scanning them with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) while they performed a mindfulness task.

After MBCT, the patients had increased activity in particular areas of their brains associated with memory, self perception, attention and emotion regulation. They had greater activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and right posterior cingulate cortex compared with patients on the waiting list for treatment, and increased left anterior cingulate cortex activity compared with the healthy controls.

The research was conducted by scientists at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders. The link takes you to an abstract – the full details are hidden by a paywall.

The numbers of people taking part in the study were small, particularly in the control group, so further research will be needed to confirm the conclusions, but this looks promising. MBCT is already recommended in the UK for preventing relapse in depression.

Meditation slows down time…

…or at least the perception of time. Subjects who had been asked to focus on their breathing overestimated how much time had passed in a “temporal bisection” task compared with subjects who had simply listened to an audiobook. “Given its emphasis on moment-to-moment awareness, we hypothesised that mindfulness meditation would alter time perception,” say the researchers at the University of Kent, Canterbury, in the UK. Their experiment, reported in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, appears to support that hypothesis.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction in older people

Few studies have been conducted into the effect of MBSR in older people. This one found it caused small but significant improvements in executive function, mindfulness and “sustained left frontal alpha asymmetry” (a pattern of brain activity associated with depression). A standard test of immunity suggested it was boosted immediately after the intervention, but 24 weeks later it was actually reduced compared with the controls. This took the researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in the US by surprise. They say further research into the effect of MBSR on immunity in older people will be needed. The study is published in the journal Neuropsychobiology.

Eating disorders

The prospect of eating food creates anxiety and other negative emotions in people with eating disorders. In this study, patients being treated in a clinical setting for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa were either given a “distraction”  or mindfulness intervention during exposure to food. Mindfulness actually increased negative emotions compared with distraction, leading the researchers to recommend caution in using “mindful eating” in patients with severe eating disorders. You can read a summary of the study in the International Journal of eating disorders here, but unfortunately it doesn’t say how many patients were involved. We’re also left in the dark about what the mindful eating and distraction interventions actually involved.

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