Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) have suggested that managing emotions can help limit neurodegeneration and pathological ageing.
The researchers studied brain activity in young and older adults when confronted with the psychological suffering of others. The neuronal connections of the older adults showed significant emotional inertia. Negative emotion excessively modified brain activity over a long period of time, particularly in the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala. These are the two brain regions responsible for the management of emotions and autobiographical memory.
The full study has been published in the journal Nature Aging.
Managing emotions poorly can cause neurological damage
Negative emotions such as anxiety and depression are thought to promote the onset of neurodegenerative diseases and dementia. Over the last 20 years, researchers have been looking at how the brain reacts to different emotions.
‘‘We are beginning to understand what happens at the moment of perception of an emotional stimulus,’’ explained Dr Olga Klimecki, a researcher at UNIGE and last author of the study.
‘‘However, what happens afterwards remains a mystery. How does the brain switch from one emotion to another? How does it return to its initial state? Does emotional variability change with age? What are the consequences for the brain of mismanagement of emotions?’’
Previous psychology research has shown that the ability to change emotions quickly is beneficial for mental health. Conversely, those who struggle with managing emotions and remain in the same emotional state for long periods are at higher risk of depression.
Negative emotions can accelerate pathological ageing
‘‘Our aim was to determine what cerebral trace remains after the viewing of emotional scenes, in order to evaluate the brain’s reaction, and, above all, its recovery mechanisms. We focused on the older adults, in order to identify possible differences between normal and pathological ageing,’’ said Patrik Vuilleumier, professor in the Department of Basic Neurosciences at the Faculty of Medicine at UNIGE.
Participants in the study were shown short television clips showing people in a state of emotional suffering, a such as during a natural disaster or distressing situation, as well as videos with neutral emotional content. Participant’s brain activity was measured by the researchers using functional MRI.
The researchers compared a group of 27 people over 65 years of age with a group of 29 people aged around 25 years. The same experiment was then repeated with 127 older adults.
‘Older people generally show a different pattern of brain activity and connectivity from younger people,’’ said Sebastian Baez Lugo, a researcher on the project and the first author.
‘‘This is particularly noticeable in the level of activation of the default mode network, a brain network that is highly activated in a resting state. Its activity is frequently disrupted by depression or anxiety, suggesting that it is involved in the regulation of emotions. In the older adults, part of this network, the posterior cingulate cortex, which processes autobiographical memory, shows an increase in its connections with the amygdala, which processes important emotional stimuli. These connections are stronger in subjects with high anxiety scores, with rumination, or with negative thoughts,” continued Baez Lugo.
The findings have encouraged the researchers to question whether dementia can be prevented by acting on mechanisms of emotional inertia. They are now conducting an 18-month interventional study evaluating the pathological effects of foreign language learning and meditation practice.
‘‘In order to further refine our results, we will also compare the effects of two types of meditation: mindfulness, which consists of anchoring oneself in the present in order to concentrate on one’s own feelings, and what is known as ‘compassionate’ meditation, which aims to actively increase positive emotions towards others,’’ concluded the authors.