Mindfulness meditation is a set of attention-based, regulatory, and self-inquiry training regimes. Although the impact of mindfulness training (MT) on self-regulation is well established, the neural mechanisms supporting such plasticity are poorly understood. MT is thought to act through interoceptive salience and attentional control mechanisms, but until now conflicting evidence from behavioral and neural measures renders difficult distinguishing their respective roles. To resolve this question we conducted a fully randomized 6 week longitudinal trial of MT, explicitly controlling for cognitive and treatment effects with an active-control group. We measured behavioral metacognition and whole-brain blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) signals using functional MRI during an affective Stroop task before and after intervention in healthy human subjects. Although both groups improved significantly on a responseinhibition task, only the MT group showed reduced affective Stroop conflict. Moreover, the MT group displayed greater dorsolateral prefrontal cortex responses during executive processing, consistent with increased recruitment of top-down mechanisms to resolve conflict. In contrast, we did not observe overall group-by-time interactions on negative affect-related reaction times or BOLD responses. However, only participants with the greatest amount of MT practice showed improvements in response inhibition and increased recruitment of dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, and right anterior insula during negative valence processing. Our findings highlight the importance of active control in MT research, indicate unique neural mechanisms for progressive stages of mindfulness training, and suggest that optimal application of MT may differ depending on context, contrary to a one-size-fits-all approach.
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