Dec. 30, 2015

Have you ever felt too “emotional” and wished you could have changed your brain and become less affected by negative events? A novel study suggests that you can tone down your emotional brain. The research, recently published in NeuroImage, was led by Dr. Noga Cohen as part of her PhD research at BGU, under the supervision of Prof. Avishai Henik, in collaboration with Dr. Hadas Okon-Singer from the University of Haifa, and the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. The researchers found that a simple computer training task, which involves ignoring irrelevant information, can change the brain's wiring to make it less responsive to unpleasant pictures. These changes were accompanied by strengthened neural connections via brain regions involved in inhibiting emotional reactions. This is the first demonstration that non-emotional training can change the brain's emotional reactivity. 

The brains of 26 healthy volunteers were monitored twice, before and after a computerized training session. The training involved a simple task, which was performed three times a day for about 15 minutes, for six days. During the training, participants were required to identify whether a target arrow points to the right or to the left, while ignoring the direction of arrows on either side of it. The central arrow could have pointed in the same direction as the adjacent arrows (ààààà or ßßßßß) or in the opposite direction (ßßàßß or ààßàà). Half the participants performed an intense training session in which 80% of trials were incongruent, with the distracting arrows facing the opposite direction as the target arrow. The other participants completed an easier control version of the training, in which only 20% of the trials were incongruent. 

The researchers hypothesized that the training would alleviate the reaction of brain regions involved in emotion, and strengthen brain connections related to emotion regulation. In order to examine these hypotheses, before and after the training, participants’ brains were monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). During this monitoring, they did a ‘resting-state fMRI scan’, in which the connections between brain regions are assessed with no specific task. In addition, they performed an emotional reactivity task, in which they had to ignore unpleasant pictures. As expected, participants who completed the more intense version of the training (but not the other participants) showed reduced activation in their amygdala – a brain region involved in negative emotions, including sadness and anxiety – following the training. In addition, the intense training resulted in increased connectivity between participants’ amygdala and a region in the frontal cortex shown to be involved in emotion regulation.  

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 altered brain connections. 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, the authors suggest that this training may prove effective for individuals suffering from emotion dysregulation. Indeed, a previous study led by these authors has already showed that similar training can reduce the tendency to be submersed in a repetitive thinking cycle about a negative life event. Therefore, the next step is to examine the impact of this non-emotional training on individuals showing enhanced emotional reactions, such as depressed and anxious individuals, or individuals at high risk to develop hypertension, who show exaggerated blood pressure reactions to emotional information. Such future directions carry important potential clinical implications for a large percentage of the population.