Mindfulness Training Changes Brain Connectivity in PTSD

soldier talks in therapy session
soldier talks in therapy session
The brains of those with PTSD who received mindfulness training changed in ways that may have helped them "switch off" looping memories.

Research from the University of Michigan Medical School and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System has shown the promise of mindfulness training for managing recurring and horrific memories in individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Anthony King, PhD, from the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry, and colleagues found that in veterans who received mindfulness training— a mind-body technique focusing on in-the-moment attention and awareness — their brains actually changed in ways that may have helped them find a way to “switch off” the memories that looped in their heads. The findings were published in Depression and Anxiety.

“The brain findings suggest that mindfulness training may have helped the veterans develop more capacity to shift their attention and get themselves out of being ‘stuck’ in painful cycles of thoughts,” Dr King said in a statement.

To examine the effects of mindfulness on veterans with PTSD, the researchers provided weekly group therapy sessions to 23 veterans (all men) for 4 months. The group was divided into 14 treated with a mindfulness-based intervention and 9 treated with a control group therapy developed by the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System that included problem-solving and group support, but not mindfulness or exposure therapy.

After the 4 months of sessions, while many of the participants reported that their PTSD symptoms had improved, only those who were treated with mindfulness-based therapy demonstrated brain changes on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Before mindfulness training, when the veterans were resting quietly, fMRI readings demonstrated extra activity in regions of the brain involved in responding to outside threats. This is indicative of the endless loop of hypervigilance seen in PTSD.

However, after learning mindfulness, their brains developed stronger connections between 2 other brain networks: one involved in shifting and directing attention and the other involved in inner, sometimes meandering thoughts.

“We’re hopeful that this brain signature shows the potential of mindfulness to be helpful for managing PTSD for people who might initially decline therapy involving trauma processing,” Dr King said. “We hope it may provide emotional regulation skills to help bring them to a place where they feel better able to process their traumas.”