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Distinct Brain Mechanisms for Emotion Generation and Regulation Identified

3D model of a human brain
Credit: sbtlneet/Pixabay
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Ever want to scream during a particularly bad day, but then manage not to? Thank the human brain and how it regulates emotions, which can be critical for navigating everyday life. As we perceive events unfolding around us, the ability to be flexible and reframe a situation impacts not only how we feel, but also our behavior and decision-making.

In fact, some of the problems associated with mental health relate to individuals’ inability to be flexible, such as when persistent negative thoughts make it hard to perceive a situation differently.

To help address such issues, a new Dartmouth-led study is among the first of its kind to separate activity relating to emotion generation from emotion regulation in the human brain. The findings are published in Nature Neuroscience.

“As a former biomedical engineer, it was exciting to identify some brain regions that are purely unique to regulating emotions,” says lead author Ke Bo, a postdoctoral researcher in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at Dartmouth. “Our results provide new insight into how emotion regulation works by identifying targets that could have clinical applications.”

For example, the systems the researchers identified could be good targets for brain stimulation to enhance the regulation of emotion.

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Using computational methods, the researchers examined two independent datasets of fMRI studies obtained earlier by co-author Peter Gianaros at the University of Pittsburgh. Participants’ brain activity was recorded in an fMRI scanner as they viewed images that were likely to draw a negative reaction, such as a bloody scene or scary-looking animals.

The participants were then asked to recontextualize the stimulus by generating new kinds of thoughts about an image to make it less aversive, before a neutral image was presented followed by another dislikable image.

By examining the neural activity, researchers could identify the brain areas that are more active when emotions are regulated versus when emotions are generated.