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Brain Rewired To Regulate Emotional Reactions: Study

First Posted: Jan 07, 2016 07:20 PM EST

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of Negev (BGU) found that a simple, computer-training task can help with changes in the brain's wiring that regulate our emotions.

With this and other studies, researchers hope to examine how their findings could help individuals suffering from depression or anxiety. Furthermore, they believe it may also be helpful for those at high risk of developing high blood pressure reactions to emotional information.

"These findings are the first to demonstrate that non-emotional training that improves the ability to ignore irrelevant information can result in reduced brain reactions to emotional events and alter brain connections," said Dr. Noga Cohen. Cohen conducted the study as part of her Ph.D. research at BGU's Cognitive Neuropsychology Lab under the supervision of Prof. Avishai Henik of the Department of Psychology, in a news release. "These changes were accompanied by strengthened neural connections between brain regions involved in inhibiting emotional reactions."

During the study, researchers examined the brains of 26 healthy volunteers who were monitored both before and after multiple computerized training sessions that involved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Participants were required to identify whether a target arrow was pointing right or left during the study, meanwhile, ignoring the direction of arrows on either side of it. Then, researchers conducted a "resting-state fMRI scan" to assess connections between brain regions during no specific task and later during an emotional reactivity task in which they had to ignore negative pictures used to study emotion.

Those who completed the more intense version of the training showed a reduced amount of activity in their amygdala when compared to other study participants; this region of the brain is linked to negative emotions that include both anxiety and sadness. Researchers found that, fortunately, intense training helped with connectivity between participants' amygdala, as well as a region in the frontal cortex that helped in regulating emotions.

"It is our hope that the current work would lead to further testing and potentially the development of effective intervention for individuals suffering from maladaptive emotional behavior," Cohen concluded. "While acknowledging the limitations of this study, which was based on a relatively small number of healthy participants and focused on short-term effects of the training, this may prove effective for individuals suffering from emotion dysregulation."

The study is published in the journal NeuroImage.

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