Thursday, January 28, 2016

Keeping Emotions in Check With Neurofeedback

Difficulty handling emotions and keeping them under control can cause various psychological issues, and may even lead to full-blown psychiatric problems. This is especially true in childhood. Trauma experienced in youth can contribute to later problems such as depression and anxiety. There are various techniques for helping people control their emotions. One of these is neurofeedback; a training method in which information about changes in an individual’s neural activity is provided to the individual in real-time. This enables the individual to self-regulate thier neural activity and produces changes in behaviour. While already in use as a treatment tool for adults, this method has not been used on young people until now. Researchers believe neurofeedback could help younger people by providing more efficient control of their emotions.

The new study used real time fMRI-based neurofeedback on a sample of kids. “We worked with subjects between the ages of 7 and 16,” explains SISSA researcher and one of the authors of the study, Moses Sokunbi. “They observed emotionally- charged images while we monitored their brain activity, before ‘returning’ it back to them.” The region of the brain studied was the insula, which is in the cerebral cortex.
The young participants could see the level of activation in the insula on a “thermometer” presented on the MRI projector screen. They were instructed to reduce or increase activation with cognitive strategies while verifying the effects on the thermometer. All of them learned how to increase insula activity, although decreasing was more difficult. Specific analysis techniques made it possible to reconstruct the complete network of the areas involved in regulating emotions (besides the insula) and the internal flow of activation. The researchers observed that the direction of flow when activity was increased reversed when decreased.
“These results show that the effect of neurofeedback went beyond the superficial- simple activation of the insula- by influencing the entire network that regulates emotions,” explains Kathrine Cohen Kadosh, Oxford University researcher and first author of the study. “They demonstrate that neurofeedback is a methodology that can be used successfully with young people.”

“Childhood and adolescence is an extremely important time for young people’s emotional development,” says Jennifer Lau, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, who has taken part in the study. “Therefore, the ability to shape brain networks associated with the regulation of emotions could be crucial for preventing future mental health problems, which are known to arise during this vital period when the brain’s emotional capacity is still developing.”


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