When Natalie Narvaez began her freshman year at the University of Minnesota, she had already been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. So she jumped at the chance to help U of M researchers test a fresh approach to treatment: mindful breathing coupled with trans-cranial stimulation, in which an electric current is passed through the brain noninvasively.
In mindful breathing, people focus on their breathing. If a thought arises, they acknowledge it, let it go, and return their attention to their breathing. The practice may also affect brain circuits and networks in ways that improve mental health.
“[Mindful breathing is] a calming procedure that activates certain parts of the brain,” says study leader Kathryn Cullen, head of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Division of the U of M Department of Psychiatry. “We expect, over time, that it would have a positive impact on neural networks.”
While all the study volunteers practice mindful breathing, only some receive trans-cranial stimulation; this allows the researchers to determine whether the stimulation augments the effects of mindful breathing. MRI and EEG examinations will identify any adjustments that may occur in neural networks over the course of the study, clinical sessions monitor mood changes, and tests and games measure any improvement in cognitive ability.
“We know that 44 percent of our freshmen, at this university, come with mental health diagnoses,” says Jakub Tolar, dean of the U of M Medical School. “What Dr. Cullen and others in our department of psychiatry do is absolutely revolutionary. They are changing how we look at this by going after the source of the problem.”
“I think that the mindful breathing had an impact on me, a positive impact, because I’ve noticed myself being less anxious in everyday activities, taking more time to appreciate little things in my life,” Narvaez says.