Stimulating Brain Activity May Shield Against Anxiety


Anxiety may be ameliorated through increased brain stimulation

A Duke University study reveals that increasing brain activity in certain regions linked to thinking and problem-solving may help ameliorate anxiety.

The investigators discovered that inviduals at increased risk for anxiety were less likely to develop the disorder when higher activity occurred in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; region of the brain responsible for complex mental operations.

The research, recently published in the Journal Cerebral Cortex, could offer a potential pathway to customizing mental health therapies to the specific brain functioning of individual patients.

“These findings help reinforce a strategy whereby individuals may be able to improve their emotional functioning  — their mood, their anxiety, their experience of depression — not only by directly addressing those phenomena, but also by indirectly improving their general cognitive functioning,” remarked Dr. Ahmad Hariri, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

In the past, researchers demonstrated that participants who exhibited a high response to threat and a low response to reward were at increased risk for developing signs of anxiety and depression.

In this new line of research, Hariri and Matthew Scult, a clinical psychology graduate student in the department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke, wanted to assess whether increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex might act as a buffer for these at-risk persons from developing a mental health disorder.

“We wanted to address an area of understanding mental illness that has been neglected, and that is the flip side of risk,” Hariri said. “We are looking for variables that actually confer resiliency and protect individuals from developing problems.”

In case you were unware, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is thought of as the brain’s “executive control” center. This area is thought to allow people to focus attention and plan complex actions.

This same brain area is also helps to regulate emotions. Many different forms of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), stimulate this brain area by offering people new strategies to reposition thoughts linked to emotions.

In this study, the investigators assessed the data of 120 undergraduate learners enrolled in Duke’s Neurogenetics Study.

Each person completed a set of questionnaires and then underwent a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). During the MRI, they were asked to engage in tasks meant to activate the previously mentioned areas of the brain.

The questions were simple memory-based math problems, designed to stimulate the prefrontal cortex. Angry or scared faces were also shown to participants to activate a region of the brain called the amygdala.

Finally, they engaged in a reward-based guessing game to increase activity in the brain’s ventral striatum.

By comparing each participant’s mental health assessment at the time of the MRI, plus a follow-up seven months later, the investigators learned that the at-risk individuals were less likely to develop anxiety when they also had increased activity in the prefrontal cortex.

“We found that if you have a higher functioning dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the imbalance in these deeper brain structures is not expressed as changes in mood or anxiety,” remarked Hariri.

The researchers warn that it is still unclear whether brain-training exercises improve the general functioning of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or just assist in its ability to complete specific tasks being trained.

They believe more studies need to occur in the future.

“We are hoping to help improve current mental health treatments by first predicting who is most at-risk so that we can intervene earlier, and second, by using these types of approaches to determine who might benefit from a given therapy,” said Scult.

Research Source: Duke University

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