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Healthy young adults had significant improvements in sustained attention on cognitive tasks after using a meditation-inspired mobile app for 6 weeks in a recent randomized clinical trial, which appeared in Nature Human Behavior.
Participants also showed increased working memory and positive changes in several neural markers of attention measured by electroencephalography. Those who played a different set of apps that they expected to produce similar behavioral improvements did not demonstrate the same gains.
The app, called MediTrain, integrates elements of traditional, focused-attention breathing meditation with adaptivity and feedback principles from neuroplasticity research. The software’s closed-loop design learns and adapts to the user’s attention span.
“Our goal was to make the traditional practice of focused-attention meditation more accessible, deliverable, and sustainable to larger numbers of people,” said Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco, the study’s senior author.
At the end of each meditation session—ranging from just 20 seconds up to as long as 5 minutes—participants indicated if they paid continuous, focused attention to their breath over the allotted time. If they responded yes, the application adapted to a slightly longer meditation period in the next session; a no response prompted a shortened next session. “This approach allowed the participants to baby-step into the process of focusing their attention,” Gazzaley said, “as well as to become gradually more introspective about where their focus is being directed.”
The researchers are now conducting larger studies with more diverse populations, including older adults and clinical cohorts, as well as assessing whether the benefits are sustained long-term. Gazzaley is also developing a prescribable video game for pediatric attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Abbasi J. Meditation App Improves Attention in Young Adults. JAMA. 2019;322(6):495. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.11649
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