Mindfulness Training Leads to Brain Changes in Vets With PTSD

New research shows the promise of mindfulness training for helping veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) manage the memories and thoughts that keep playing over and over in their minds in an endless loop.

Even more surprising, according to researchers, is that the veterans’ brains actually changed in ways that may help them find their own off switch for that endless loop.

The findings, published in Depression and Anxiety by a team from the University of Michigan Medical School and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, come from a study of 23 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

All of the vets got some form of group therapy. After four months of weekly sessions, many reported that their PTSD symptoms eased up.

But only in those who got mindfulness training — a mind-body technique that focuses on in-the-moment attention and awareness — did the researchers see the brain changes.

The changes showed up on functional MRI, or fMRI, brain scans that can visualize brain activity as different areas of the brain “talk” to one another through networks of connections between brain cells, according to the researchers.

Before the mindfulness training, when the veterans were resting quietly, their brains had extra activity in regions involved in responding to threats or other outside problems. This is a sign of that endless loop of hypervigilance often seen in PTSD, researchers noted.

But after learning mindfulness, they developed stronger connections between two other brain networks: The one involved in our inner, sometimes meandering, thoughts, and the one involved in shifting and directing attention.

“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,” said Anthony King, Ph.D., a University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry researcher who led the new study in collaboration with VA psychologists.

“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,” he 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.”

In all, 14 of the veterans finished the mindfulness sessions and completed follow-up fMRI scans, and nine finished the comparison sessions and had scans. The small size of the group means the new results are only the start of an exploration of this issue, King said.

Source: University of Michigan Medical School and VA Ann Arbor

PHOTO: The colorful areas show the two brain regions where veterans trained in mindfulness saw the biggest increases in connections, using powerful fMRI scanners.Credit: University of Michigan/VA Ann Arbor.