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Among younger adults, the ability to willfully regulate negative affect, enabling effective responses to stressful experiences, engages regions of prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdala. Because regions of PFC and the amygdala are known to influence the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, here we test whether PFC and amygdala responses during emotion regulation predict the diurnal pattern of salivary cortisol secretion. We also test whether PFC and amygdala regions are engaged during emotion regulation in older (62- to 64-year-old) rather than younger individuals. We measured brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging as participants regulated (increased or decreased) their affective responses or attended to negative picture stimuli. We also collected saliva samples for 1 week at home for cortisol assay. Consistent with previous work in younger samples, increasing negative affect resulted in ventral lateral, dorsolateral, and dorsomedial regions of PFC and amygdala activation. In contrast to previous work, decreasing negative affect did not produce the predicted robust pattern of higher PFC and lower amygdala activation. Individuals demonstrating the predicted effect (decrease < attend in the amygdala), however, exhibited higher signal in ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) for the same contrast. Furthermore, participants displaying higher VMPFC and lower amygdala signal when decreasing compared with the attention control condition evidenced steeper, more normative declines in cortisol over the course of the day. Individual differences yielded the predicted link between brain function while reducing negative affect in the laboratory and diurnal regulation of endocrine activity in the home environment.
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Summary Stress disorders are among the most commonly occurring of all mental disorders. In this context, the question arises whether the stress inevitably unfolding around us has the potential to “contaminate” and compromise us. In the current multi-center study, we investigate the existence of such empathic stress (defined as a full-blown physiological stress response that arises solely by observing a target undergo a stressful situation), and whether empathic stress permeates to the core of the stress system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Additionally, we investigate whether empathic stress responses may be modulated by the familiarity between observer and target (partners vs. strangers), the modality of observation (real-life vs. virtual) and observer sex (female vs. male). Participants were tested in dyads, paired with a loved one or a stranger of the opposite sex. While the target of the dyad (n = 151) was exposed to a psychosocial stressor, the observer (n = 211) watched through a one-way mirror or via live video transmission. Overall, 26% of the observers displayed physiologically significant cortisol increases. This empathic stress was more pronounced in intimate observer-target dyads (40%) and during the real-life representation of the stressor (30%). Empathic stress was further modulated by interindividual differences in empathy measures. Despite the higher prevalence of empathic stress in the partner and real-life observation conditions, significant cortisol responses also emerged in strangers (10%) and the virtual observation modality (24%). The occurrence of empathic stress down to the level of HPA-axis activation, in some cases even in total strangers and when only virtually witnessing another's distress, may have important implications for the development of stress-related diseases.
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While much attention has been devoted to examining the beneficial effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs on patients' ability to cope with various chronic medical conditions, most studies have relied on self-report measures of improvement. Given that these measures may not accurately reflect physiological conditions, there is a need for an objective marker of improvement in research evaluating the beneficial effects of stress management programs. Cortisol is the major stress hormone in the human organism and as such is a promising candidate measure in the study of the effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs. In conjunction with other biological measures, the use of cortisol levels as a physiological marker of stress may be useful to validate self-reported benefits attributed to this program. In the current manuscript, we review the available literature on the role of cortisol as a physiological marker for improvement with regards to mindfulness practice, and make recommendations for future study designs.

This study examined the relationship between the executive control process of inhibition and self-reported dispositional mindfulness, controlling for gender, grade, and cortisol levels in 99 (43% female) fourth- and fifth-graders ( = 10.23 years, SD = 0.53). Students completed a measure of mindful attention awareness and a computerized executive function (EF) task assessing inhibitory control. Morning cortisol levels also were collected and were used as an indicator of neuroendocrine regulation. Hierarchical regression analyses revealed that, after controlling for gender, grade, and cortisol levels, higher scores on the mindfulness attention awareness measure significantly predicted greater accuracy (% correct responses) on the inhibitory control task. This research contributes to understanding the predictors of EF skills in early adolescents’ cognitive development. Specifically, it identifies mindfulness—a skill that can be fostered and trained in intervention programs to promote health and well-being—as significantly related to inhibitory processes in early adolescence.
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OBJECTIVES: This study investigated the relationships between a mindfulness-based stress reduction meditation program for early stage breast and prostate cancer patients and quality of life, mood states, stress symptoms, lymphocyte counts, and cytokine production. METHODS: Forty-nine patients with breast cancer and 10 with prostate cancer participated in an 8-week MBSR program that incorporated relaxation, meditation, gentle yoga, and daily home practice. Demographic and health behavior variables, quality of life (EORTC QLQ C-30), mood (POMS), stress (SOSI), and counts of NK, NKT, B, T total, T helper, and T cytotoxic cells, as well as NK and T cell production of TNF, IFN-γ, IL-4, and IL-10 were assessed pre- and postintervention. RESULTS: Fifty-nine and 42 patients were assessed pre- and postintervention, respectively. Significant improvements were seen in overall quality of life, symptoms of stress, and sleep quality. Although there were no significant changes in the overall number of lymphocytes or cell subsets, T cell production of IL-4 increased and IFN-γ decreased, whereas NK cell production of IL-10 decreased. These results are consistent with a shift in immune profile from one associated with depressive symptoms to a more normal profile. CONCLUSIONS: MBSR participation was associated with enhanced quality of life and decreased stress symptoms in breast and prostate cancer patients. This study is also the first to show changes in cancer-related cytokine production associated with program participation.

OBJECTIVES: This study investigated the relationships between a mindfulness-based stress reduction meditation program for early stage breast and prostate cancer patients and quality of life, mood states, stress symptoms, and levels of cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate (DHEAS) and melatonin. METHODS: Fifty-nine patients with breast cancer and 10 with prostate cancer enrolled in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that incorporated relaxation, meditation, gentle yoga, and daily home practice. Demographic and health behavior variables, quality of life, mood, stress, and the hormone measures of salivary cortisol (assessed three times/day), plasma DHEAS, and salivary melatonin were assessed pre- and post-intervention. RESULTS: Fifty-eight and 42 patients were assessed pre- and post-intervention, respectively. Significant improvements were seen in overall quality of life, symptoms of stress, and sleep quality, but these improvements were not significantly correlated with the degree of program attendance or minutes of home practice. No significant improvements were seen in mood disturbance. Improvements in quality of life were associated with decreases in afternoon cortisol levels, but not with morning or evening levels. Changes in stress symptoms or mood were not related to changes in hormone levels. Approximately 40% of the sample demonstrated abnormal cortisol secretion patterns both pre- and post-intervention, but within that group patterns shifted from “inverted-V-shaped” patterns towards more “V-shaped” patterns of secretion. No overall changes in DHEAS or melatonin were found, but nonsignificant shifts in DHEAS patterns were consistent with healthier profiles for both men and women. CONCLUSIONS: MBSR program enrollment was associated with enhanced quality of life and decreased stress symptoms in breast and prostate cancer patients, and resulted in possibly beneficial changes in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis functioning. These pilot data represent a preliminary investigation of the relationships between MBSR program participation and hormone levels, highlighting the need for better-controlled studies in this area.
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