Brain Activity Buffers Against Worsening Anxiety

Source: Duke University

Summary: A new study suggests, boosting the activity of the brain in some areas related to thinking and problem-solving may also protect against worsening anxiety.

Previous findings have shown that people whose brains exhibit a high response to threat in the amygdala region and a low response to reward in the ventral striatum region are more at risk of developing anxiety and depression symptoms over time. In the current work, researchers wanted to investigate, a higher activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) of the brain could help or not the so-called at-risk individuals from future mental illness. Researchers from Duke University with the help of non-invasive brain imaging (fMRI) found that people at-risk for anxiety and depression were less likely to develop the disorder if they had higher activity in the brain’s region responsible for complex mental operations which is the DLPFC. The research findings are published in the journal Cerebral Neurocortex.

 high activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex acts against worsening anxiety

Three fMRI brain scans reveal the locations of the amygdala (left), ventral striatum (middle) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (right). Credit: Matthew Scult, Duke University.

The DLPFC is our brain’s executive control center, which helps us to focus on our attention and plan complex actions. It plays a key role in emotion regulation and also in various types of psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which engages with this region with strategies to reframe the patients’ emotions. Totally 120 undergraduate students participated in the Duke Neurogenetics Study where all the participants completed a series of mental health questionnaires and underwent for non-invasive brain scan (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) while engaged in tasks meant to activate certain specific regions in the brain. Finally, the researchers found that the at-risk individuals were less likely to develop anxiety and depression if they had high activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Prof. Ahmad Hariri said, “These findings help reinforce a strategy whereby individuals may be able to improve their emotional functioning—their mood, their anxiety, their experience of depression—not only by directly addressing those phenomena, but also by indirectly improving their general cognitive functioning.”

More Information: Matthew A Scult et al, “Prefrontal Executive Control Rescues Risk for Anxiety Associated with High Threat and Low Reward Brain Function”, Cerebral Cortex (2017). DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhx304

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