But what is the direct and biological impact of negative emotions on the brain? Can their deleterious effects be limited? These neuroscientists from the University of Geneva, observing the activation of the brain of young and old adults confronted with psychological suffering, find that the neural connections of the elderly show significant emotional inertia: negative emotions have modified them excessively. and over a long period of time.
2 brain areas appear particularly affected, the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala, 2 regions strongly involved in the management of emotions and in autobiographical memory.
Better management of emotions, through meditation?
Lead author Dr Olga Klimecki, a researcher at UNIGE’s Swiss Center for Affective Sciences explains that scientists are only just beginning to understand what happens when exposed to an emotional stimulus but that many questions around emotions remain unresolved: “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 poor management of emotions? “.
Negative emotions, emotional inertia, neurodegeneration and dementia
Previous studies in psychology have shown that an ability to quickly switch from one emotion to another is beneficial for mental health. Conversely, people who are unable to regulate their emotions and stay in the same emotional state for a long time are at a higher risk of depression. The team therefore set out to find a cerebral trace after such an emotional stimulus, which would make it possible to evaluate and understand the brain’s response and then its recovery mechanisms. The elderly, who will follow normal or pathological aging, were an obvious target for this research.
The study consisted of inviting 27 participants aged over 65 vs 29 participants aged around 25, then in a second phase, 127 other elderly participants to watch short clips showing people in a state of emotional suffering, during a natural disaster or distress situation as well as emotionally neutral videos. During this viewing, the participants’ brains were observed by functional MRI. The researchers find that:
- older people typically show a different pattern of brain activity and connectivity than younger people;
- activation of the default mode network, a brain network activated at rest, is frequently disrupted by depression or anxiety, suggesting that this network is involved in emotion regulation;
- in older people, the posterior cingulate cortex, which is part of the default mode network, and which processes autobiographical memory, has increased connections to the amygdala, which processes emotional stimuli. These connections are stronger in subjects with high anxiety scores or negative thoughts;
- however, older people tend to regulate their emotions better than younger people and focus more easily on positive details, even after a negative stimulus;
- finally, changes in connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala seem to indicate a “deviation” from normal aging towards pathological aging and neurodegeneration; this deviation is also more accentuated in people who suffer the most from anxiety and negative emotions.
Thus, poor emotional regulation appears to be associated with an increased risk of dementia. However, the authors are unable to decide: Is it this inability to control one’s emotions that promotes the development of dementia later in life, or the reverse? They hypothesize, however, is that more anxious people would have less capacity for emotional distancing and that this emotional inertia in the context of aging would somehow freeze the brain in a negative and degenerative state.
Meditation would it be a solution? Would acting against this emotional inertia prevent neurodegeneration? Researchers suggest that meditation, which helps to better manage emotions, could also limit neurodegeneration in the long term. A new study is underway to assess the effects of the practice of 2 types of meditation on cognition:
mindfulness, which consists of anchoring oneself in the present to focus on one’s own feelings and compassionate meditation which aims to increase empathy.
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EMOTIONS: Managing them better means aging healthier
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