In January of last year, I opted to take a completely different course that forced thinking in a different way. The class was Mindfulness and Meditation, led by a woman who was visiting Colby and had spent her life traveling and attending meditation retreats for months on end. Initially, I decided on the class because I needed a break from traditional classroom work, but I quickly found mindfulness and meditation to be difficult in a very different way. The first few days when we meditated for over an hour all I could think about was the fact that my legs were falling asleep and my whole body was cramping from sitting for so long. However, as the month went on and my body became used to the inactivity, I started to gain an appreciation for how my brain would work in hours of meditation.
As mindfulness and meditation are gaining traction on a world-wide scale, the effects and benefits have captured the attention of psychologists. Since, the growth in popularity, the field of psychology has focused many studies on the effects of mindfulness and meditation and how they can help a variety of problems from depression and anxiety to adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is particularly relevant and noticeable on a college campus; for students who are diagnosed, sitting in a classroom for hours on end and spending long nights completing assignments is nearly impossible without the help of a stimulant such as Adderall. While medication for ADHD is the first line of treatment it is not necessarily beneficial in the long-term and can have adverse side effects which leads to discontinuation and sporadic use. I have many friends that use Adderall for their attention problems, but many complain of lack of appetite and inability to sleep. Some have even fainted due to the inability to eat when on the medication. This is a perfect example of the drug working the way it is supposed to and helping students focus and complete assignments on time, however, the effects are sometimes not worth the use. Recently, psychologists have proposed mindfulness as a possible treatment in combination with the use of medication for people with ADHD.
In 2018 a study was conducted to determine the effects of Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) in combination with medication in adults with ADHD (Janssen et al., 2018). In this study adults were separated into two groups, one in which the participants continued with their medication and another in which they attended eight weekly sessions of MBCT. The MBCT consisted of meditation, psychoeducation and discussions about the sessions as a whole. The participants in the study were evaluated before and after the sessions completed and again at 3 and 6 months after the MBCT was completed. The experimenters found that adults who were attending the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy sessions along with taking medication experienced a more significant reduction in ADHD symptoms, as determined by their clinician, and this finding continued through the 6-month follow-up (Janssen et al., 2018).
While the neurological basis of why mindfulness is effective in people with ADHD is not fully understood, and there is much research to be done surrounding the specific brain structures that are implicated in adults with ADHD. There is no distinct conclusion about which specifically are affected, but one thought is that rather than focusing on specific structures, the difference between a person with normal attention versus ADHD lies in the connection between several brain structures in the Default-Mode Network (DMN): medial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and posterior cingulate cortex (Bachmann, Lam & Philipsen, 2016). The DMN play a role in attention processes, impulse control and working memory (Bachmann et al., 2016). Again, it is not clear what the specific impact of mindfulness and mediation is on the connectivity between these brain regions, but it is possible that it could play a role in neuronal preservation and restoration (Bachmann et al., 2016).
As ADHD becomes more relevant, and the downfalls of the medications which are used to treat the disorder create more issues than solutions, it is important to learn more about how this deficit works and understand what we can do to alleviate the issues with traditional treatments. There is much research to be done on this subject, and as the study of mindfulness continues in conjunction with the field of psychology it will be undoubtedly interesting to determine what we can learn about our brains and how they work.
Bachmann, K., Lam, A. P., & Philipsen, A. (2016). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and the Adult ADHD Brain: A Neuropsychotherapeutic Perspective. Frontiers in psychiatry, 7, 117. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2016.00117
Janssen, L., Kan , C.C., Carpentier, P.J., Sizoo, B., Hepark, S., Schellekens, M.P.J., Donders, A.R.T., Buitelaar, J.K., Speckens, A.E.M. (2018). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy v. treatment as usual in adults with ADHD: a multicentre, single-blind, randomised controlled trial. Psychological Medicine 49, 55–65. https://doi.org/10.1017/ S0033291718000429