Negative emotions, anxiety and depression are thought to promote the onset of neurodegenerative diseases and dementia. But what is their impact on the brain and can their deleterious effects be limited? Neuroscientists from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) have observed the activation of the brains of young and old adults faced with the psychological suffering of others. The neural connections of the elderly show significant emotional inertia: negative emotions modify them excessively and over a long period, particularly at the level of the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala, two cerebral regions strongly involved in the management of emotions and autobiographical memory. These results, which will be published in natural agingindicate that better management of these emotions — through meditation, for example — could help limit neurodegeneration.
For 20 years, neuroscientists have studied how the brain reacts to emotions. “We are beginning to understand what happens when an emotional stimulus is perceived,” explains Dr. Olga Klimecki, researcher at the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences at UNIGE and the Deutsches Zentrum für Neurodegenerative Erkrankungen, the last author of this study carried out as part of a European research project co-directed by UNIGE. However, what happens next 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 poor management of emotions? »
Previous studies in psychology have shown that an ability to quickly change emotions 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. “Our goal was to determine what brain trace remains after viewing emotional scenes, in order to assess the brain’s reaction, and especially its recovery mechanisms. We focused on the elderly, in order to identify possible differences between normal and pathological aging,” explains Patrik Vuilleumier, professor at the Department of Basic Neurosciences of the Faculty of Medicine and at the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences at UNIGE. , who co-directed this work.
All brains are not created equal
The scientists showed volunteers short television clips showing people in a state of emotional pain – during a natural disaster or in a situation of distress, for example – as well as videos with neutral emotional content, in order to observe their brain activity using functional MRI. First, the team compared a group of 27 people over the age of 65 with a group of 29 people around the age of 25. The same experiment was then repeated with 127 elderly people.
“Older people typically show a different pattern of brain activity and connectivity than younger people,” says Sebastian Baez Lugo, researcher in Patrik Vuilleumier’s lab and first author of the work. This is particularly noticeable at the level of activation of the default mode network, a brain network that is highly activated in the resting state. Its activity is frequently disturbed by depression or anxiety, suggesting that it is involved in the regulation of emotions. In older people, as part of this network, the posterior cingulate cortex, which processes autobiographical memory, shows increased connections to the amygdala, which processes important emotional stimuli. These connections are stronger in subjects with high anxiety scores, with ruminations or with negative thoughts. »
Empathy and aging
However, older people tend to regulate their emotions better than younger people and focus more easily on the positive details, even during a negative event. But changes in connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala could indicate a deviation from the normal aging phenomenon, accentuated in people who show more anxiety, rumination and negative emotions. The posterior cingulate cortex is one of the regions most affected by dementia, suggesting that the presence of these symptoms could increase the risk of neurodegenerative disease.
“Does poor emotional regulation and anxiety increase the risk of dementia or the reverse? We still don’t know,” says Sebastian Baez Lugo. “Our hypothesis is that more anxious people would have no or less ability for emotional distancing. The mechanism of emotional inertia in the context of aging would then be explained by the fact that the brain of these people remains “frozen” in a negative state by linking the suffering of others to their own emotional memories. »
Could meditation be a solution?
Would it be possible to prevent dementia by acting on the mechanism of emotional inertia? The research team is currently conducting an 18-month interventional study to assess the effects of learning a foreign language on the one hand, and practicing meditation on the other. “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 to focus on one’s own feelings, and so-called “compassionate” meditation. , which aims to actively increase positive emotions towards others,” the authors add.
This research is part of a major European study, MEDIT-AGEING, which aims to assess the impact of non-pharmacological interventions for better aging.
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Managing your emotions better could prevent pathological aging – Psychology and Psychiatry News
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