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Impact of Mindfulness Martial Arts Training on Neural and Behavioral Indices of Attention in Youth with Learning Disabilities and Co-occurring Mental Health Challenges

  • Karen MilliganEmail author
  • Annabel Sibalis
  • Trish McKeough
  • Christine Lackner
  • Louis A. Schmidt
  • Carson Pun
  • Sidney J. Segalowitz



Deficits in attentional control are often associated with academic and mental health challenges experienced by youth with learning disabilities (LDs). Mindfulness treatments may improve attentional control; however, findings in youth populations to date have been mixed. Neural measures of attentional control may be more sensitive to treatment effects, but have been rarely employed. We addressed this limitation by examining the impact of a 20-week mindfulness martial arts training program for youth aged 11–17 years with LD and mental health challenge on electroencephalography (EEG), parent-report, and behavioral indices of attention.


At pre- and post-treatment, a sample of 48 youth receiving treatment and 38 waitlisted controls completed two attention tasks while EEG was recorded. Task performance and P3 amplitude and latency from EEG data were calculated. Parent-reported attention was also measured.


Findings varied depending on the type of measure. Controlling for pre-treatment levels of attention, significant post-treatment group differences were indicated on parent-reported attention and P3 amplitude for one attention task, with significant gains noted for the treatment but not the control group. Significant gains identified were maintained at 3-month follow-up for the treatment group. No significant post-treatment group differences were found for P3 latency or task performance measures.


Mindfulness-based martial arts training appears to significantly impact some, but not all, indices of attentional control. Further research using a randomized control trial design with an exercise-only control is warranted. Recommendations for future research design are discussed.


Mindfulness Youth Learning disability Attention Electroencephalography 



We are grateful to the contributions of the youth and parent participants, MMA leaders and staff at the Child Development Institute (past and present), and research assistants, including but not limited to Stefon Van Noordt, James Desjardin, Flavia Spiroiu, Melissa Edwards, Christine Michael, Aidan Mehak, Joshua Doidge, Tamara Meixner, Jennifer Khoury, Alex Irwin, and Leanne Wilkins. Finally, we express our deepest appreciation to three anonymous reviewers for their time and thoughtful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.

Author Contributions

KM designed, oversaw collection and processing of data, completed data analyses, and wrote the manuscript. AS assisted with the collection and processing of data, completion of data analyses, and writing of the manuscript. TM led the implementation of MMA, assisted with interpreting results, and collaborated in the editing of the final manuscript. CL assisted in the processing of data and collaborated in the editing of the final manuscript. LAS assisted with study design, interpretation of findings, and collaborated in the editing of the final manuscript. CP assisted with data collection and processing and collaborated in the editing of the final manuscript. SJS assisted with study design, data processing, interpretation of findings, and editing of the final manuscript.


Financial support for the completion of the study was provided by the Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation (KM, LAS, SJS), the Ryerson Health Research Grant (KM), MITACS Accelerate grant (KM and Leanne Wilkins), and the Harry Rosen Stress Research Grant (KM).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

This research was approved by the Research Ethics Board of Ryerson University and thus complies with the ethical standards of the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyRyerson UniversityTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Child Development Institute, Integra ProgramTorontoCanada
  3. 3.Mount St. Vincent UniversityHalifaxCanada
  4. 4.McMaster UniversityHamiltonCanada
  5. 5.Brock UniversitySt. CatharinesCanada

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