Better management of emotions can help reduce neurodegeneration

Negative emotions, anxiety and depression are thought to promote the onset of neurodegenerative diseases and dementia. But what is its effect on the brain and can its harmful effects be reduced? Neuroscientists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) have observed the activation of the brains of young and old people when faced with the psychological suffering of others. Older people’s neural connections display significant emotional inactivity: negative emotions modulate them excessively and over a long period of time, particularly in the posterior cingulate cortex and amygdala, two brain regions strongly involved in emotion management and autobiographical memory. These results will be published in nature agingsuggests that better management of these feelings — through meditation, for example — can help reduce neurodegeneration.

For the past 20 years, neuroscientists have been researching how the brain reacts to emotion. “We are beginning to understand what happens at the moment of perception of an emotional stimulus,” explains Dr. Olga Klimecki, a researcher at the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences at UNIGE and at the Deutsches Zentrum für Neurodegenerative Erkrankungen, who recently wrote. This study was conducted as part of a European research project co-directed by UNIGE. However, what happens next remains a mystery. How does the brain move from one emotion to another? How do you return to its initial state? Does emotional variance change with age? What are the consequences of mismanaging emotions on the brain? “

Previous studies in psychology have shown that the ability to quickly change emotions is beneficial to mental health. On the contrary, people who are unable to regulate their emotions and stay in the same emotional state for a long time are more likely to suffer from depression. Our goal was to determine the brain trace left after viewing emotional scenes, in order to assess the brain’s reaction and, above all, the mechanisms of its recovery. We focused on the elderly, in order to identify potential differences between normal and pathological aging,” says Patrick Vuilliumier, professor in the Department of Basic Neurosciences in the Faculty of Medicine and in the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences at UNIGE, who co-directed this work.

Not all brains are created equal

Scientists showed volunteers short television clips showing people in emotional distress — during a natural disaster or distress situation for example — as well as videos with neutral emotional content, in order to monitor their brain activity using fMRI. First, the team compared a group of 27 people over the age of 65 with a group of 29 people who were about 25 years old. Then the same experiment was repeated with 127 elderly people.

Older adults generally show a different pattern of brain activity and communication than younger people. This is particularly noticeable in the level of activation of the default mode network, a brain network that is highly activated in the resting state. Its activity is often disrupted by depression or anxiety, which indicates that it is involved in regulating emotions. In older adults, part of this network, the posterior cingulate cortex, which processes autobiographical memory, shows increased connections with the amygdala, which processes important emotional stimuli. These connections are stronger in people with high levels of anxiety, rumination, or negative thoughts.

Sebastien Baez-Lego, researcher in Patrick Vuilliumier’s lab and first author

Empathy and aging

However, older people tend to regulate their emotions better than younger people, and focus more easily on positive details, even during negative events. But changes in the connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala could indicate a deviation from the normal aging phenomenon, which is more prominent in people who display 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 may increase the risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease.

Is poor emotional regulation and anxiety what increases the risk of dementia, or vice versa? “We still don’t know,” says Sebastien Baez-Lugo. “Our hypothesis is that more anxious people will have no or less capacity for emotional distancing. The mechanism of emotional inertia in the context of aging can then be explained by the fact that these people’s brain remains ‘frozen’ in a negative state by associating the suffering of others with their own emotional memories.” .

Can meditation be a solution?

Can dementia be prevented by acting on the mechanism of emotional inertia? The research team is currently conducting an 18-month interventional study to evaluate the effects of foreign language learning on the one hand, and meditation practice on the other. In order to improve our results further, we will also compare the effects of two types of meditation: mindfulness, which consists of anchoring oneself in the present in order to focus on one’s feelings, and what is known as “compassionate” meditation, which aims to actively increase positive feelings towards others. ‘.

This research is part of a large European study, MEDIT-AGING, which aims to evaluate the impact of non-drug interventions to improve aging.

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