Brain power: research highlights – April 2021

Have a big day coming up and you are worried about your performance? This study might help.

According to a new study published in Mindfulness, a single short bout (15 mins) of physical exercise or mindfulness intervention can positively affect mood, attention and executive functions. The corresponding author of this study was Dr. Christian Müller from the Institute of Psychology, Technische Universität Darmstadt with collaborators from other research institutes across Germany. The researchers used two different groups of university students to administer them with either physical exercise (which included warmup, stretching, balancing tasks and medium intensity cardiovascular workouts along with knee-bends, table-dips, skipping and cool down) or a mindfulness intervention (inclusive of yoga exercises followed by a mindfulness meditation leading to guided attention and hence a body scan). Researchers also used a third control group wherein participants were shown just the videos of fitness tasks and yoga exercises without any actual intervention. A variety of mood, attention and executive function scales were assessed before and after the physical or a mindfulness intervention. Researchers observed and inferred that mood states were more positive, calmer and awake, followed by both the interventions. The attention span was also enhanced significantly by the physical activity, whereas mindful intervention significantly influenced the executive function scores. Therefore, this recent investigation, with certainty, establishes that even a single bout of either physical and mental exercise has a positive influence on our higher cognitive functions.

Müller, C., Dubiel, D., Kremeti, E., Lieb, M., Streicher, E., Siakir Oglou, N., … Karbach, J. (2021). Effects of a Single Physical or Mindfulness Intervention on Mood, Attention, and Executive Functions: Results from two Randomized Controlled Studies in University Classes. Mindfulness, 12(5), 1282–1293.

Should we go cycling? Why not! It fires up the brain.

It is a well-accepted fact that physical exercise is closely linked to cognitive functions. However, the effect of physical workouts on the brain and behavior is never being studied simultaneously. Therefore, the question of what happens to cognitive functions during the exercise itself remains elusive. In this recent study published in the Frontiers of psychology, Dr. Lin and his co-workers from the University of Technology, Sydney, used a wireless sensor and tried to record the brain activities while subjects were simultaneously cycling and performing a visual-oriented detection task. A group of 10 male students participated in the task, which was performed in the laboratory settings. The participants wore a wireless EEG cap, which recorded the brain signals while the participants cycled with different intensities and performed a visual detection task. In the visual detection task, participants needed to find a target letter, which was flashed in between a sequence of non-target letters. Accuracy and the reaction times in finding the target letter were used as the performance indicators. On the other hand, P300 brain wave EEG recordings while participants were resting, cycling with low intensity, cycling with vigorous intensity and post cycling served as physiological indicators. P300 brain wave signals reflect changes in the attention span during a particular task. The study results demonstrated that the attention span was increased and the reaction time was decreased while subjects performed cycling with low and vigorous intensity. This study showed that cognitive performance enhancement can happen during a physical bout of exercise and provided the scientific community with a technical advancement to record brain activity and behavior simultaneously in a non-laboratory setting. 

Lin, C. T., King, J. T., John, A. R., Huang, K. C., Cao, Z., & Wang, Y. K. (2021). The Impact of Vigorous Cycling Exercise on Visual Attention: A Study With the BR8 Wireless Dry EEG System. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 15(February), 1–10.

You have got stress? – Well then, breathe consciously!

Mindfulness training has been long known to enhance cognitive skills, which in turn maximize our performance. Mindfulness is linked with most of the cognitive traits that include attention, executive functions, working memory etc. Apart from these traits that can directly influence cognitive function, is it possible that mindfulness training can also reduce indirect influencers of performance, i.e., stress and anxiety? According to a new study published in BMC Psychology, yes mindfulness training can help reduce stress and anxiety. Dr. Geovan Menezes de Sousa, a researcher at Brain Institute, Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte leaded this study. Forty university students with no previous meditation experience were assigned into a mindfulness training group and a control group in the study. Those who were in the mindfulness training group participated in 30-minute audio-guided breathing meditation sessions for three days in a row. However, the participants in the control group only listened to a 30-minute educational audio clip. After three days, the cortisol (a hormone that is an indicator of stress) levels and high trait mindfulness (measured with Five facets of mindfulness questionnaire) were measured. It was observed that participants who underwent mindfulness training (who performed conscious breathing) have low stress and anxiety levels (low cortisol in the blood) as compare to the control participants. Also, students with higher scores on mindfulness traits showed low stress and anxiety.

Sousa, G. M. de, Lima-Araújo, G. L. de, Araújo, D. B. de, & Sousa, M. B. C. de. (2021). Brief mindfulness-based training and mindfulness trait attenuate psychological stress in university students: a randomized controlled trial. BMC Psychology, 9(1), 1–14.

Mindfulness – A new high for both mind and the body

Mindfulness training can reduce stress levels and can increase cognitive functioning. Both of the responses are somehow connected to the functioning and activity of the brain. Therefore, how mindfulness training can affect brain activity needs to be addressed at this moment. This question was answered long back by Dr. Davidson from the University of Wisconsin. His article was published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, wherein using EEG, he showed how brain activity alters as a result of 8 weeks of mindfulness training. One major observation of the study was that the activity of the anterior electrode sites was higher in the group of participants that underwent meditation training compared to the group with no training. Another interesting yet significant observation came while investigating the role of mindfulness training on the immune system. It was also reported that antibody titer (a readout of the immunity) for the influenza vaccine was more in the trained group. This study essentially states that mindfulness can bring enhancement to the brain and immune activity.

Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., … Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564–570.

What was that all about?

Physical exercise and mindfulness training interventions are very simple, low-cost, highly effective practices that can be performed at home itself. These interventions can impact our cognitive performance to a great extent. The three recent studies summarized above give us a clear perspective of how physical workout and mindfulness can increase our productivity in different scenarios. The effect is always positive and starts as soon as we engage ourselves in performing these practices. Consistently doing an exercise (physical or mental) for half an hour a day for three days can bring in significant changes in the performance, it is exciting to even think of the effect these practices can bring in the long run. Enhancement of brain activity, decreased cortisol levels and reaction times, increased attention span, executive function score, working memory, and increased immune response show that these two practices act at both physiological and psychological levels. As we face these challenging unpredictable times during this pandemic, these kinds of practices will help us lead a more efficient and meaningful life.