Meditation app effective in improving young adults' attention spans

A new study published this morning in Nature found that a closed-loop digital meditation platform, dubbed MediTrain, helped improve and sustain young adults' attention spans.
By Laura Lovett
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Between Twitter notifications and the constant of flood of work emails, staying focused on one task can be challenging. However, researchers have discovered that a new meditation platform could be effective in improving young adults' attention spans. In the study, which was published in Nature Human Behavior, the MediTrain closed-loop digital meditation platform helped healthy young adults sustain their attention and working memory. 

“Media and technology multitasking have become pervasive in the lives of young adults and research has shown that this behaviour is associated with challenges to their attention abilities that present as increased distractibility, diminished attention span, poorer academic performance and reduced personal contentment,” the authors of the study wrote. “Given that attention is a fundamental component process of all aspects of higher-order cognition (for example, memory, decision making, goal management and emotional regulation), there exists a need for new methods to enhance attention abilities.”

TOPLINE DATA

On average subjects that used the MediTrain program, which was created by the researchers, increased their attention span from 20 seconds on the first day of the program to six minutes after 25 days of training. 

Researchers also monitored intra-individual variability in response time across trials (RTVar), which is associated with “mind-wandering events and periods of distractability.” Lower rates are associated with better concentration. The authors of the study noted that children with ADD as well as adults with cognitive impairments and dementia have increased RTVar rates. 

Participants in the closed-loop meditation group showed a significant decrease in their RTVar rates over the course of the trial, whereas young people in the placebo group demonstrated no difference in RTVar rates between the beginning and the end of the study. 

HOW IT WAS DONE

The study included 40 healthy young adults between the ages of 18 and 35. Participants were split into two groups. Twenty-two participants were placed into the trial group, which got the MediTrain software program that was developed to promote mindfulness awareness of breathing and help participants focus. The other 18 were enrolled into a placebo group.  

“Unlike other meditation apps in the consumer market place that offer a digital version of traditional methods to guided mediation, our approach involved designing, developing and testing a meditation-inspired software program that integrates key aspects of traditional focused-attention meditation with a neuroplasticity-based, closed-loop approach to cognitive enhancement that has proven successful in generating positive outcomes with other interventions,” researchers wrote. 

Participants in the MediTrain group completed the program on an iPad Mini2. Their data was then sent directly back to the researchers. The MediTrain training lasted over a period of six weeks. 

WHAT'S THE HISTORY

Mediation apps are becoming a hot trend in the digital space. Headspace is one of the major names in the meditation app field — the startup launched a subsidiary to focus on prescription meditation apps called Headspace Health last year. The company plans on creating its first prescription product by 2020. 

Another major player in the space is Calm, which develops meditation and sleep apps. The San Francisco-based startup raised $88 million in Series B funding in February.

While meditation and mindfulness apps are certainly popular with investors, many in the field are pressing for more validation within the mental health field as a whole. In April a study was published in Nature Digital Medicine that found a majority of mental health apps did not provide evidence or peer-reviewed studies to back up their product. In fact, in that study only two out of the 73 apps studied provided evidence from a study using the app. 

Still, some major meditation apps have been included in studies. For example, Headspace has been used in a number of studies, including on in BMC Psychology, which found the app work about the same as the sham app. 

IN CONCLUSION 

“[W]e found that MediTrain led to improvement in the ability of healthy young adults to stabilize their attention from moment to moment across two independent tasks," authors of the study wrote. "These results suggest a transfer of benefits from 6 weeks of engagement in a self- paced, internally directed attention practice (that is, MediTrain) to enhanced sustained attention while performing externally directed attention tasks that demanded rapid processing speed. Coupled with the finding of increased working memory capacity, and further supported by neural data showing improved markers of attention and neural consistency, these findings offer converging evidence of improvements in attention in response to a closed-loop, digital meditation program.”