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.”
About this psychology and emotion research
Source: Federica Sgorbissa – SISSA Image Source: The image is adapted from the SISSA press release Original Research: Full open access research for “Using real-time fMRI to influence effective connectivity in the developing emotion regulation network” by JKathrin Cohen Kadosh, Qiang Luo, Calem de Burca, Moses O. Sokunbi, Jianfeng Feng, David E.J. Linden, and Jennifer Y.F. Lau in NeuroImage. Published online October 22 2015 doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.09.070
Using real-time fMRI to influence effective connectivity in the developing emotion regulation network
For most people, adolescence is synonymous with emotional turmoil and it has been shown that early difficulties with emotion regulation can lead to persistent problems for some people. This suggests that intervention during development might reduce long-term negative consequences for those individuals. Recent research has highlighted the suitability of real-time fMRI-based neurofeedback (NF) in training emotion regulation (ER) networks in adults. However, its usefulness in directly influencing plasticity in the maturing ER networks remains unclear. Here, we used NF to teach a group of 17 7–16 year-olds to up-regulate the bilateral insula, a key ER region. We found that all participants learned to increase activation during the up-regulation trials in comparison to the down-regulation trials. Importantly, a subsequent Granger causality analysis of Granger information flow within the wider ER network found that during up-regulation trials, bottom-up driven Granger information flow increased from the amygdala to the bilateral insula and from the left insula to the mid-cingulate cortex, supplementary motor area and the inferior parietal lobe. This was reversed during the down-regulation trials, where we observed an increase in top-down driven Granger information flow to the bilateral insula from mid-cingulate cortex, pre-central gyrus and inferior parietal lobule. This suggests that: 1) NF training had a differential effect on up-regulation vs down-regulation network connections, and that 2) our training was not only superficially concentrated on surface effects but also relevant with regards to the underlying neurocognitive bases. Together these findings highlight the feasibility of using NF in children and adolescents and its possible use for shaping key social cognitive networks during development.
“Using real-time fMRI to influence effective connectivity in the developing emotion regulation network” by JKathrin Cohen Kadosh, Qiang Luo, Calem de Burca, Moses O. Sokunbi, Jianfeng Feng, David E.J. Linden, and Jennifer Y.F. Lau in NeuroImage. Published online October 22 2015 doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.09.070