How the brain keeps emotions at bay

September 20, 2006

Daily life requires that people cope with distracting emotions--from the basketball player who must make a crucial shot amidst a screaming crowd, to a salesman under pressure delivering an important pitch to a client. Researchers have now discovered that the brain is able to prevent emotions from interfering with mental functioning by having a specific "executive processing" area of the cortex inhibit activity of the emotion-processing region.

The findings also offer insight into how sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression are unable to control emotional intrusion into their thoughts, said the researchers, Amit Etkin, Joy Hirsch, and colleagues, who reported the discovery. They published their findings in the September 21, 2006, issue of the journal Neuron, published by Cell Press.

Their studies were based on previous findings that specific parts of an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)--a center for so-called "executive" control of neural processing--are connected to the amygdala. The amygdala is the brain's major center for processing emotional events.

The experimental challenge for Etkin, Hirsch, and colleagues was to determine whether this region of the ACC was responsible merely for "monitoring" conflict between cognitive and emotional processing or for actively "resolving" that conflict.

To distinguish the two processes, Etkin and colleagues designed experiments in which volunteer subjects were asked to indicate by pressing a button whether a face image was happy or fearful. The subjects were instructed to ignore labels of "fear" or "happy" written across each face.

These labels might be either "congruent" (e.g., happy face, "happy" word) or "incongruent" (e.g., happy face, "fear" word) with the image. Incongruent face-word combinations constituted a response conflict between emotional and cognitive stimuli. The researchers found that subjects could "resolve" this conflict more readily if an incongruent image was preceded by another incongruent image. This resolution represented an anticipation by the subjects' brains from the first image that they could resolve the conflict depicted in the second image

As the researchers scanned the subjects' brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they presented the subjects with a series of such images designed to reveal what parts of the brain were active during such conflict resolution. The technique of fMRI involves using harmless magnetic fields and radio waves to measure blood flow in brain regions, which reflects brain activity.

Etkin, Hirsch, and colleagues found that the emotional stimuli activated the amygdala as expected. Importantly, they found that when presented with the "incongruent" images this activity was inhibited by specific activation of the "rostral ACC" in a manner that indicated this region was exerting inhibitory control over the amygdala.

"Our experiments on healthy subjects were carried out in order to understand what role the rostral cingulate normally plays in nonpathological emotional conflict," wrote the researchers. "But the data also allow us to better understand a variety of psychiatric disorders in which patients experience exaggerated interference from emotional distracters." They pointed out that people with PTSD, as well as those whose depression is resistant to treatment, show lowered rostral cingulate activity during emotional processing. "Indeed, lower rostral cingulate activity prior to treatment actually predicts a poor response to antidepressant therapy," they wrote.

"Taken together, these findings suggest that elevated amygdalar activity and exaggerated behavioral interference may be due to deficient amygdalar inhibition by the rostral cingulate, which leads to an inability to deal with emotional conflict," concluded Etkin and colleagues. "The capacity for recruitment of the rostral cingulate may thus determine how well an individual can cope with the intrusion of negative emotional stimuli or mental content," they concluded.

Source: Cell Press

Explore further: White matter damage linked to chronic musculoskeletal pain in Gulf War veterans

Related Stories

White matter damage linked to chronic musculoskeletal pain in Gulf War veterans

November 1, 2017
A study from the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, has shown that structural damage in the white matter of the brain may be linked to chronic musculoskeletal pain in Gulf War veterans.

Mental training changes brain structure and reduces social stress

October 4, 2017
Meditation is beneficial for our well-being. This ancient wisdom has been supported by scientific studies focusing on the practice of mindfulness. However, the words "mindfulness" and "meditation" denote a variety of mental ...

Study reveals breakthrough in decoding brain function

September 25, 2017
If there's a final frontier in understanding the human body, it's definitely not the pinky. It's the brain.

New research findings offers hope to people with fibromyalgia

September 21, 2017
A novel psychological therapy that encourages addressing emotional experiences related to trauma, conflict and relationship problems has been found helpful for people with the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia. A research ...

Funny people are more intelligent than unfunny peers

October 16, 2017
Albert Einstein attributed his brilliant mind to having a child-like sense of humour. Indeed, a number of studies have found an association between humour and intelligence.

The concept of schizophrenia is coming to an end – here's why

August 24, 2017
The concept of schizophrenia is dying. Harried for decades by psychology, it now appears to have been fatally wounded by psychiatry, the very profession that once sustained it. It's passing will not be mourned.

Recommended for you

Hibernating ground squirrels provide clues to new stroke treatments

November 17, 2017
In the fight against brain damage caused by stroke, researchers have turned to an unlikely source of inspiration: hibernating ground squirrels.

Age and gut bacteria contribute to multiple sclerosis disease progression

November 17, 2017
Researchers at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School published a study suggesting that gut bacteria at young age can contribute to multiple sclerosis (MS) disease onset and progression.

Molecular guardian defends cells, organs against excess cholesterol

November 16, 2017
A team of researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health has illuminated a critical player in cholesterol metabolism that acts as a molecular guardian in cells to help maintain cholesterol levels within a safe, ...

Prototype ear plug sensor could improve monitoring of vital signs

November 16, 2017
Scientists have developed a sensor that fits in the ear, with the aim of monitoring the heart, brain and lungs functions for health and fitness.

Ancient enzyme could boost power of liquid biopsies to detect and profile cancers

November 16, 2017
Scientists are developing a set of medical tests called liquid biopsies that can rapidly detect the presence of cancers, infectious diseases and other conditions from only a small blood sample. Researchers at The University ...

FDA to crack down on risky stem cell offerings

November 16, 2017
U.S. health authorities announced plans Thursday to crack down on doctors pushing stem cell procedures that pose the gravest risks to patients amid an effort to police a burgeoning medical field that previously has received ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.