Managing emotions may be key for preventing ‘ageing’ and brain decline

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Negative attitudes have consistently proven problematic for the balance of hormones in the body. Many of these imbalances concern the immune system, but research suggests it may also significantly affect the brain. By triggering changes in two specific regions of the organ, negative emotions may set the stage for pathological ageing and neurodegeneration.

According to the latest findings published in Nature Ageing, the two brain regions most affected by negative emotions are the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala.

Not only are these parts intimately connected with emotion management, but they are also closely tied to the onset of dementia.

Thus, the research suggests negative emotions like anxiety and depression could promote the onset of neurodegeneration.

The author of the study, Sebastian Baez Lugo said: “Our hypothesis is that anxious people have no or less capacity for emotional distancing.

“The mechanisms of emotional inertia in the context of ageing 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.”

The key hypothesis of the study is that chronic negative emotions affecting these parts of the brain could contribute to pathological ageing.

This type of ageing is defined as changes that occur as a result of age-related disease, as distinct from changes associated with healthy ageing.

For instance, a person who is diagnosed with cancer may expect some pathological ageing when undergoing treatment like radiation and chemotherapy.

To reach their findings, the scientists assessed the brain of young and older adults confronted with the psychological suffering of others.

Participants were shown short clips of people experiencing emotional distress in the midst of stressful situations like natural disasters.

For comparison purposes, the volunteers were also shown video footage of neutral emotional content.

Brain activity was assessed using MRI videos while the footage was observed.

Co-author Professor Patrik Vuilleumier, of the University of Geneva, said: “Our aim was to determine what cerebral track remains after the viewing of emotional scenes, in order to evaluate the brain’s reaction, and above all, its recovery mechanisms.

“We focused on the older adults, in order to identify possible differences between normal and pathological ageing.”

Baez added: “Older people generally show a different pattern of brain activity and connectivity from younger people.

“This is particularly noticeable in the levels of activation of the default mode network, a brain network that is highly activated in a resting state.

“Its activity is frequently disrupted by depression or anxiety, suggesting that it is involved in the relation of emotions.

“In older adults, part of this network, the posterior cingulate cortex, which processes autobiographical memory, shows an increase in its connections with the amygdala, which processes important emotional stimuli.

“These connections are stronger in subjects with high anxiety scores, with rumination or negative thoughts.”

In the next step of their research, the scientists will seek to identify ways to counter the effects of negative emotions on the brain.

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