Negative emotions, anxiety and depression would promote the onset of neurodegenerative diseases and dementia. But what is their impact on the brain and can their deleterious effects be limited? It is in order to be able to answer these questions that neurosciences have been interested for twenty years in the way in which the brain reacts to emotions. ” We begin to fully understand what happens when an emotional stimulus is perceived. “, explains Doctor Olga Klimecki, researcher at the Center interfacultaire en sciences affectifs de l’Université de Genève (abbreviated UNIGE) and at the Deutsches Zentrum für Neurodegenerative Erkrankungen, last author of this study carried out within the framework of a European research co-directed by the 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 can be the consequences on the brain of a bad management of its emotions? »
Previous studies in psychology have shown that an ability to quickly change one’s emotions is beneficial for mental health. Conversely, people who fail to regulate them and remain in the same emotional state for a long time have a higher risk of depression. ” Our objective was to determine the cerebral trace that prints the viewing of emotional scenes in order to evaluate the reaction of the brain, especially its mechanisms of recovery. And in particular in the elderly, in order to identify possible differences between normal and pathological aging. says Professor Patrik Vuilleumier, from the Department of Basic Neurosciences of the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine, who co-directed this work. To do this, the scientists observed the activation of the brain of people confronted with the psychological suffering of others. To do this, they showed volunteers short excerpts from television reports showing people during a natural disaster or in a situation of distress, as well as videos with neutral emotional content, in order to observe their brain activity using functional MRI.
All brains are not equal
First, the scientific team compared a group of 27 people over 65 to a group of 29 people around 25 years old. The same experiment was then reproduced with 127 elderly people. ” Older people generally have a different pattern of brain activity and connectivity than younger people.”, detail the researchers. Understand by this that the neural connections of the elderly show significant emotional inertia: negative emotions modify them excessively and for a long time, particularly in the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala, two brain regions strongly involved in the management of emotions and autobiographical memory. They state that ” this is particularly noticeable in the level of activation of the default mode network, a brain network that is highly activated in the resting phase. Its activity is frequently disturbed during depressive states or anxiety, suggesting that it participates in the regulation of emotions. »
Furthermore, it turns out that ” in the elderly, part of this network, the posterior cingulate cortex, linked to autobiographical memory, shows an increase in its connections with the amygdala, linked to the processing of important emotional stimuli, and these connections are stronger in subjects with high scores for anxiety, rumination, or negative thoughts. “, adds the scientific team. Older people, however, tend to regulate their emotions better than younger people, and focus more easily on the positive details, even during a negative event. But the changes in the 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. However, 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, chronic progressive diseases that affect the central nervous system.
Meditation, a solution?
A question therefore arises: is it poor emotional regulation and anxiety that increase the risk of dementia or the opposite? So far, researchers don’t know the answer. But their hypothesis is that more anxious people would have no or more capacity for emotional distancing. More concretely, “ 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 relating the suffering of others to their own emotional memories. “, they believe. As to whether it would be possible to prevent dementia by acting on this mechanism of emotional inertia their results, to discover in Nature Aging and being part of a large European study called “MEDIT-AGEING”, which aims to assess the impact of non-pharmacological interventions for better aging, indicate that better management of these emotions could well contribute to limiting neurodegeneration. How ? Through meditation, for example, a mental practice that consists of focusing your attention on the present.
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 moment to focus on one’s own feelings, and so-called ‘compassionate’ meditation. , which aims to actively increase positive emotions towards others. », conclude the authors. Note that in France, a study coordinated by Inserm as part of this same program Medit-Ageing aims to determine if meditation can act as a tool for preventing dementia and improving the mental health and well-being of the elderly. By 2050, the number of people aged over 60 is expected to double according to WHO estimates, rising from 65 million to 2 billion: seniors could then represent 22% of the world’s population in 2050. In this context, prevention and the encouragement to “age well” therefore constitute an essential societal issue.
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What if better managing our emotions could prevent aging?
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