Emerging research suggests the size of a specific area of the brain appears to influence emotional regulation in healthy people.
In a study of healthy college students, University of Illinois investigators discovered individuals with a relatively small inferior frontal cortex (IFC) — a brain region behind the temples that helps regulate thoughts and emotions — are more likely than others to suffer from anxiety.
These individuals also tend to view neutral or even positive events in a negative light, researchers report.
Investigators evaluated sixty-two students. Brain structural data from neuroimaging scans and responses to standard questionnaires were used to determine anxiety levels and predilection for negative bias.
Previous studies of people diagnosed with anxiety have found similar correlations between the size of the IFC and anxiety and negative bias, said University of Illinois psychology postdoctoral researcher Sanda Dolcos, who led the study with graduate student Yifan Hu.
But the new findings are the first to see these same dynamics in healthy adults, the researchers said.
“You would expect these brain changes more in clinical populations where anxiety is very serious, but we are seeing differences even in the brains of healthy young adults,” Dolcos said.
The study, reported in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, also found that the relationship between the size of the IFC and a student’s negative bias was mediated by their level of anxiety.
“People who have smaller volumes have higher levels of anxiety; people who have larger IFCs tend to have lower levels of anxiety,” Dolcos said.
And higher anxiety is associated with more negative bias, she said. “How we see this is that the higher volume of the IFC confers resilience.”
“We found that larger IFC volume is protecting against negative bias through lower levels of trait anxiety,” Hu said.
Anxiety appears to be on the rise on college campuses. According to the American College Health Association, nearly 60 percent of students report at least one troubling bout of anxious worry every year.
“There is a very high level of anxiety in the student population, and this is affecting their life, their academic performance, everything,” Dolcos said. “We are interested in identifying what is going on and preventing them from moving to the next level and developing clinical anxiety.”
Anxiety can interfere with many dimensions of life, causing a person to be on high alert for potential problems even under the best of circumstances, Hu said. Negative bias also can interfere with a person’s commitment to activities that might further their life goals, she said.
Understanding the interrelatedness of brain structure, function and personality traits such as anxiety and their behavioral effects such as negative bias will help scientists develop interventions to target specific brain regions in healthy populations, Hu said.
“We hope to be able to train the brain to function better,” she said. “That way, we might prevent these at-risk people from moving on to more severe anxiety.”
Source: University of Illinois