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Cued spatial attention modulates functionally relevant alpha rhythms in visual cortices in humans. Here, we present evidence for analogous phenomena in primary somatosensory neocortex (SI). Using magnetoencephalography, we measured changes in the SI mu rhythm containing mu-alpha (7–14 Hz) and mu-beta (15–29 Hz) components. We found that cued attention impacted mu-alpha in the somatopically localized hand representation in SI, showing decreased power after attention was cued to the hand and increased power after attention was cued to the foot, with significant differences observed 500–1100 ms after cue. Mu-beta showed differences in a time window 800–850 ms after cue. The visual cue also drove an early evoked response beginning ∼70 ms after cue with distinct peaks modulated with cued attention. Distinct components of the tactile stimulus-evoked response were also modulated with cued attention. Analysis of a second dataset showed that, on a trial-by-trial basis, tactile detection probabilities decreased linearly with prestimulus mu-alpha and mu-beta power. These results support the growing consensus that cue-induced alpha modulation is a functionally relevant sensory gating mechanism deployed by attention. Further, while cued attention had a weaker effect on the allocation of mu-beta, oscillations in this band also predicted tactile detection.
During selective attention, ∼7–14 Hz alpha rhythms are modulated in early sensory cortices, suggesting a mechanistic role for these dynamics in perception. Here, we investigated whether alpha modulation can be enhanced by “mindfulness” meditation (MM), a program training practitioners in sustained attention to body and breath-related sensations. We hypothesized that participants in the MM group would exhibit enhanced alpha power modulation in a localized representation in the primary somatosensory neocortex in response to a cue, as compared to participants in the control group. Healthy subjects were randomized to 8-weeks of MM training or a control group. Using magnetoencephalographic (MEG) recording of the SI finger representation, we found meditators demonstrated enhanced alpha power modulation in response to a cue. This finding is the first to show enhanced local alpha modulation following sustained attentional training, and implicates this form of enhanced dynamic neural regulation in the behavioral effects of meditative practice.
Using a common set of mindfulness exercises, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) have been shown to reduce distress in chronic pain and decrease risk of depression relapse. These standardized mindfulness (ST-Mindfulness) practices predominantly require attending to breath and body sensations. Here, we offer a novel view of ST-Mindfulness's somatic focus as a form of training for optimizing attentional modulation of 7–14 Hz alpha rhythms that play a key role in filtering inputs to primary sensory neocortex and organizing the flow of sensory information in the brain. In support of the framework, we describe our previous finding that ST-Mindfulness enhanced attentional regulation of alpha in primary somatosensory cortex (SI). The framework allows us to make several predictions. In chronic pain, we predict somatic attention in ST-Mindfulness “de-biases” alpha in SI, freeing up pain-focused attentional resources. In depression relapse, we predict ST-Mindfulness's somatic attention competes with internally focused rumination, as internally focused cognitive processes (including working memory) rely on alpha filtering of sensory input. Our computational model predicts ST-Mindfulness enhances top-down modulation of alpha by facilitating precise alterations in timing and efficacy of SI thalamocortical inputs. We conclude by considering how the framework aligns with Buddhist teachings that mindfulness starts with “mindfulness of the body.” Translating this theory into neurophysiology, we hypothesize that with its somatic focus, mindfulness' top-down alpha rhythm modulation in SI enhances gain control which, in turn, sensitizes practitioners to better detect and regulate when the mind wanders from its somatic focus. This enhanced regulation of somatic mind-wandering may be an important early stage of mindfulness training that leads to enhanced cognitive regulation and metacognition.