Network-based characterization of brain functional connectivity in Zen practitioners

Front Psychol. 2015 May 12;6:603. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00603. eCollection 2015.


In the last decade, a number of neuroimaging studies have investigated the neurophysiological effects associated with contemplative practices. Meditation-related changes in resting state functional connectivity (rsFC) have been previously reported, particularly in the default mode network, frontoparietal attentional circuits, saliency-related regions, and primary sensory cortices. We collected functional magnetic resonance imaging data from a sample of 12 experienced Zen meditators and 12 meditation-naïve matched controls during a basic attention-to-breathing protocol, together with behavioral performance outside the scanner on a set of computerized neuropsychological tests. We adopted a network system of 209 nodes, classified into nine functional modules, and a multi-stage approach to identify rsFC differences in meditators and controls. Between-group comparisons of modulewise FC, summarized by the first principal component of the relevant set of edges, revealed important connections of frontoparietal circuits with early visual and executive control areas. We also identified several group differences in positive and negative edgewise FC, often involving the visual, or frontoparietal regions. Multivariate pattern analysis of modulewise FC, using support vector machine (SVM), classified meditators, and controls with 79% accuracy and selected 10 modulewise connections that were jointly prominent in distinguishing meditators and controls; a similar SVM procedure based on the subjects' scores on the neuropsychological battery yielded a slightly weaker accuracy (75%). Finally, we observed a good correlation between the across-subject variation in strength of modulewise connections among frontoparietal, executive, and visual circuits, on the one hand, and in the performance on a rapid visual information processing test of sustained attention, on the other. Taken together, these findings highlight the usefulness of employing network analysis techniques in investigating the neural correlates of contemplative practices.

Keywords: fMRI; functional connectivity; meditation; network analysis; sustained attention.