Mindfulness for Children May Prevent Anxiety and Mental Illness

Anxiety disorders are among the most common psychiatric conditions for children and teens. While antidepressants are frequently used to treat youth with anxiety disorders, sometimes, antidepressants may be poorly tolerated in children who are at high risk of developing bipolar disorder.

A new study by researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) explores how cognitive therapy that uses mindfulness techniques such as meditation, quiet reflection, and facilitator-led discussion, may serve as an adjunct to pharmacological treatments.

The study, published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, looked at brain imaging in youth before and after mindfulness-based therapy and saw changes in brain regions that control emotional processing.

The review is part of a larger study by co-principal investigators Melissa DelBello, M.D., and Sian Cotton, Ph.D., looking at the effectiveness of mindfulness-based therapy.

In a small group of youth identified with anxiety disorders (generalized, social, and/or separation anxiety) and who have a parent with bipolar disorder, researchers evaluated the neurophysiology of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in children who are considered at-risk for developing bipolar disorder.

Jeffrey Strawn, M.D., a co-principal investigator on the study, explains important activity in the brains of children receiving this therapy:

“Our preliminary observation that the mindfulness therapy increases activity in the part of the brain known as the cingulate, which processes cognitive and emotional information, is noteworthy. This study, taken together with previous research, raises the possibility that treatment-related increases in brain activity [of the anterior cingulate cortex] during emotional processing may improve emotional processing in anxious youth who are at risk for developing bipolar disorder.”

The study’s findings in regard to increases in activity in the part of the brain known as the insula, are of high interest, Strawn said. This is because the insula is the part of the brain responsible for monitoring and responding to the physiological condition of the body.

In this pilot trial, nine participants ages nine to 16 years, underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while performing continuous performance tasks with emotional and neutral distractors prior to and following 12 weeks of mindful-based cognitive therapy.

Researchers discovered multiple benefits from the mindfulness intervention. Cotton explains that clinician-rated anxiety and youth-rated trait anxiety were significantly reduced following treatment. Further, the increases in mindfulness were associated with decreases in anxiety. As put by Cotton:

“Mindfulness-based therapeutic interventions promote the use of meditative practices to increase present-moment awareness of conscious thoughts, feelings, and body sensations in an effort to manage negative experiences more effectively…these integrative approaches expand traditional treatments and offer new strategies for coping with psychological distress.”

Increasingly, patients and families are asking for additional therapeutic options, in addition to traditional medication-based treatments, that have proven effectiveness for improved symptom reduction. Mindfulness-based therapies for mood disorders is one such example with promising evidence being studied and implemented at University of Cincinnati, said Cotton. Strawn adds that:

“The path from an initial understanding of the effects of psychotherapy on brain activity to the identification of markers of treatment response is a challenging one, and will require additional studies of specific aspects of emotional processing circuits.”

This guest article originally appeared on PsychCentral.com: Mindfulness Skills Show Promise in Treating Kids’ Anxiety

Strawn, J.R., Cotton, S., Luberto, C.M., Patino, L.R., Stahl, L.A., Weber, W.A., Eliassen, J.C., Sears, R. and DelBello, M.P. (2016) ‘Neural function before and after Mindfulness-Based cognitive therapy in anxious adolescents at risk for developing Bipolar disorder’, Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, 26(4), pp. 372–379. doi: 10.1089/cap.2015.0054




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