Mindfulness has increasingly gained a foothold in the scientific community since the discovery of its effect on the brain’s default mode network, or DMN.
The DMN, in turn, continues to be linked to a growing number of neurological and psychiatric illnesses. New research on bipolar disorder (BD) is highlighting the possible importance of treatments, like mindfulness-based activity, that focus on the DMN.
The DMN includes brain regions with high degrees of functional connectivity and is active in the brain at rest, “but becomes deactivated when task performance is initiated,” according to this 2016 paper. Dr. Sarah Mulukutla, a neurologist, says this is the part of the brain where mind wandering happens – and it is also where changes are seen in long-time meditators.
Dysfunction in the DMN has been found in patients with diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, ADHD, and mood disorders such as bipolar. Interestingly, a 2019 study published in the journal Neurology suggests a relationship between the first and the latter of these diseases; people with bipolar disorder were nearly seven times as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease as people who did not have bipolar disorder, reported the authors.
Bipolar disorder was also the subject of another paper published in 2020 in the journal Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences. In this meta-analysis, the authors reviewed 23 studies looking at DMN connectivity in patients with bipolar disorder, using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI).
The authors concluded that bipolar disorder was associated with changes in the DMN. Their findings “seem to indicate that BD is associated with alterations in both frontal and posterior DMN structures, mainly in the prefrontal, posterior cingulate and inferior parietal cortices.”
The connections found between the DMN and illnesses like bipolar disorder naturally suggest exploring interventions that may impact activity in the DMN, including mindfulness practices.
Mindfulness practices include breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). Evidence is building that MBCT may be a useful intervention for patients with depression, traumatic brain injury, and bipolar disorder.
A meta-analysis of 10 qualified studies looking at the effectiveness of MBCT in patients with bipolar disorder was published in summer 2020 in the journal Psychiatry Research. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy “appears effective for alleviation of depression and anxiety among BD patients, possibly by improving emotional regulation and mindfulness abilities,” the authors concuded.
These and other researchers are careful to point out that the evidence to date is sparse and much more research is needed. The path between neurological and psychiatric illness, the DMN, and mindfulness is still theoretical at best. It is nonetheless interesting and worthy of pursuit considering the number of diseases that could be impacted by advances in understanding these complex relationships.