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Study pinpoints the brain regions that regulate emotions

Have you ever felt the urge to scream during a frustrating moment but somehow managed not to? This restraint is thanks to the sophisticated way our brains handle emotions, which plays a crucial role in our daily interactions and decision-making processes.

The brain regulates emotions through a network of brain regions, neurotransmitters, and hormones, primarily involving the limbic system.

Researchers at Dartmouth College have conducted a pioneering study that sheds light on this complex process. The experts have distinguished between the neural activities involved in generating emotions and those involved in regulating them.

The research offers new perspectives on emotional flexibility and its significance for mental health.

Decoding the brain: a Dartmouth discovery

The Dartmouth-led team, including lead author Ke Bo, a postdoctoral researcher at the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab (CANlab), used advanced computational methods to analyze fMRI data.

The data had been previously collected by study co-author Peter Gianaros at the University of Pittsburgh, involving participants’ responses to emotionally charged images.

Through this analysis, the researchers pinpointed specific brain regions active during emotional regulation – a process known in neuroscience as “reappraisal.” The anterior prefrontal cortex and other higher-level cortical areas, which also play roles in abstract thinking and future planning, were identified as key to regulating emotions.

Brain regions involved in regulating emotions

“As a former biomedical engineer, it was thrilling to identify brain regions uniquely involved in regulating emotions,” said Bo. “Our findings not only enhance our understanding of how emotion regulation works but also reveal potential clinical applications.”

The ability to activate these specific regions correlates with greater resilience against negative experiences, highlighting a critical aspect of mental health.

Furthermore, these areas are also linked to resisting temptations and avoiding dependencies, such as drug addiction.

Amygdala and cortex at work

The research also explored the role of the amygdala, traditionally seen as a center for processing threats and negative emotions.

The study confirmed that the amygdala consistently responds to negative experiences, regardless of attempts to lessen these emotions.

“It’s really the cortex that is responsible for generating people’s emotional responses, by altering our perceptions and meanings attached to events,” explained Bo.

Chemical connections: The neurotransmitter network

Further intriguing aspects of the study involved examining how neurochemicals like dopamine and serotonin influence these emotion-regulating networks. These chemical messengers are essential for communication within the brain and play a significant role in emotion regulation.

Comparing the emotion regulation brain maps with neurotransmitter binding maps from other studies highlighted significant overlaps.

“Our results showed that areas rich in receptors for cannabinoids, opioids, and serotonin, particularly the 5H2A receptor, are crucial for emotion regulation,” noted Tor Wager, senior author and director of the Dartmouth Brain Imaging Center.

“This discovery is pivotal, especially considering the impact of drugs that target these receptors, shedding light on their potential long-term effects on our ability to manage emotions.”

Therapeutic implications

Serotonin’s role is particularly well-known in the context of depression, with most antidepressants designed to inhibit its reuptake.

Serotonin is often called the “feel-good” neurotransmitter because it contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness. Low levels of serotonin in the brain are commonly linked to a depressed mood.

Additionally, the study highlights the significant effects of psychedelic drugs on these receptors. It suggests that the therapeutic benefits of such treatments depend on their ability to change our cognitive processes and emotional responses.

This underscores the necessity of combining psychological support with pharmaceutical treatments to effectively address mental health challenges.

“It’s important to consider these connections that come from basic science,” said Wager. “Understanding drug effects requires a deep knowledge of the involved brain systems and their cognitive functions.”

Mapping emotion in the brain

This research from Dartmouth provides groundbreaking insights into the neural underpinnings of emotion regulation and generation.

By identifying specific brain regions and their interactions with neurochemicals, the study has the potential to enhance mental health treatment, offering hope for more effective integration of psychological and pharmaceutical approaches.

The study is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.


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