The Researcher in Focus for this DRNI CONNECT edition is Colm Lannon-Boran, Associate Faculty Lecturer & PhD Candidate, National College of Ireland and Maynooth University, who spoke to us about his work and about his research.
What is your area of research?
My research is on mindfulness and its effects on sleep and cognitive function in older adults. The focus is on older adults without cognitive impairment, investigating the potential for mindfulness practice to preserve cognitive ability and improve sleep quality, and hopefully provide cheap and easily accessible means of reducing age-related cognitive decline and risk of dementia.
What made you interested in this area?
During my undergraduate psychology degree, I read many studies and some books on mindfulness, and began meditating multiple times a week, with clear benefits becoming apparent. As I read more widely, and the field itself grew and became more heavily researched, I developed an interest in the neurocognitive effects of mindfulness. In particular, I was compelled by research on mindfulness and improvement in function of the default-mode network, a brain network that deteriorates in Alzheimer’s disease. Sleep quality is known to be strongly associated with brain health and cognitive function, and studies show that mindfulness can improve sleep, yet there are few if any studies looking at mindfulness, sleep, and cognitive function in conjunction in older adults. Hopefully my research can help fill that gap.
What impact would you like your research to have?
I’d like people to have a better understanding of the neuroscience behind mindfulness practice, and the cognitive benefits that can come with consistent practice. There are a lot of mixed opinions and misconceptions about mindfulness – it’s become somewhat of a “buzzword” and a fix for all and any of life’s problems, when really it should be seen as a lifestyle factor that can contribute to good mental and cognitive health. I’d like to see mindfulness-based intervention be more widely discussed as a cognitive tool, and an evidence-based option for middle-aged and older adults to try if they wish to reduce cognitive decline and dementia risk.
Who has helped or inspired you in your area of research?
I have to give huge thanks to my supervisors – Dr Michelle Kelly, Dr Caoimhe Hannigan, and Dr Joanna McHugh Power – for all their help, expertise, and support. My knowledge and understanding of cognitive ageing, statistics analysis, and research methods, among many other things, have improved hugely thanks to their guidance.
What current research are you most excited about (your own, or that of others)?
I’m excited about research being undertaken by the ENIGMA-meditation Working Group in University of Southern California at the moment. They’re conducting meta-analyses of neuroimaging data in an attempt to reveal the neural mechanisms underlying different contemplative practices, mindfulness included. Their goal is to “systematically and reliably characterize the neurobiology of various meditation and contemplative practices, and investigate how their neurobiology relates to behavioural, psychological and cognitive attributes and outcomes.” I think it’s the sort of large-scale collaborative research that the field needs right now.
I’m also excited by my current PhD chapter, where I am analysing RCT data to investigate the interrelationships between sleep quality, mindfulness, and cognitive function in older adults with subjective cognitive decline. It’s a novel analysis, so that makes it extra interesting to me.
What do you do when you are not working? / What is your favourite pastime?
When not working, I like to spend time with friends/family – getting coffee, going on hikes, grabbing a few drinks and having a chat. To relax, I like to read any fiction, but I especially enjoy big sci-fi/fantasy sagas. I love watching movies and series that have great stories as well. I play hurling, enjoy going to the gym, and of course I meditate frequently. I don’t see meditation as a pastime, however, but rather a personal experiment – one that has had positive results for me for many years now.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
I don’t know if it’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever received per se, but this quote from philosopher Marcus Aurelius is one I’ve always found useful: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” I don’t think reducing externally-caused distress is as simple as Marcus makes it out to be, but I do believe that one way we can strengthen this “power to revoke” is through mindfulness practice.