Friday, July 17, 2015


Psychologists and neuroscientists from the University of Oxford and University College London plan an unprecedented trial of how mindfulness affects mental health.

Seven thousand teenagers from 76 secondary schools in Great Britain are to take part in an unprecedented trial into the effect of mindfulness on mental health. This will be the largest trial of its kind ever conducted. The Wellcome Trust is funding the £6.4m study.

One teacher involved in the project admitted it could be a challenge to sell mindfulness to young people. ‘It is not especially cool,’ said Paula Kearney, a geography teacher at the UCL academy in north London who has trained her pupils in mindfulness. ‘I have had a lot of ‘Miss, I’m not going to do this, this is ridiculous’.’ But other pupils have spoken of its benefits.

Dr Willem Kuyken (pictured left), a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, who is leading the study, said the spread of mindfulness among children could do for the British population’s mental health what fluoride in the water did for its teeth. He said the trial was focusing on children partly because of evidence that half of all mental health disorders begin before the age of 15. He wants to test whether mindfulness can increase resilience to ‘a core vulnerability’ displayed by teens: difficulty sustaining attention in the face of thoughts and impulses that can become overwhelming.

‘Just as going for a run is a well-known way of protecting general physical health, mindfulness exercises develop mental fitness and resilience,’ Professor Kuyken said. But ‘enthusiasm is running ahead of the evidence and that is no basis for policy decisions. None of the previous research has been definitive and there is now a pressing need for a high quality robust trial to assess effectiveness.’

Starting next year, 3,200 11- to 14-year-olds---representing a cross-section of British youth---will be trained in secular mindfulness techniques in a 10-week course which involves a 30-minute lesson every week and up to 20 minutes’ daily practice at home. They will be taught simple meditations, such as the ‘7/11’ breathing exercise where you breathe in for 7 seconds and out for 11, or a walking meditation. Another 3,200 will receive standard personal, health and social education lessons. Over the following 2 years both groups will be monitored for their susceptibility to depression and associated mental disorders.

A further 600 11- to 16-year-olds will be tested by neuroscientists led by Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (pictured right) at UCL before and after mindfulness training for how it affects their self-control and emotional regulation. Some will have their brain activity scanned while others will respond to computerised tests. Blakemore said the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making, self-control, emotion regulation and self-awareness, undergoes a substantial reorganisation in early adolescence. She wants to find out exactly when during this period mindfulness has most effect.

‘The brain is susceptible to negative and stressful environments and that might be one reason why we see an increase in the development of mental illnesses in early adolescence,’ Professor Blakemore said. ‘But the brain is also susceptible to interventions which improve resilience, which we are hoping includes mindfulness.’

Source: The Guardian. 15 July 2015.


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