Boosting Brain Activity May Buffer Against Anxiety

A new study at Duke University finds that boosting brain activity in regions related to thinking and problem-solving may help buffer against anxiety.

The researchers found that people at greater risk for anxiety were less likely to develop the disorder if they had higher activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region responsible for complex mental operations.

The new findings, published recently in the journal Cerebral Cortex, may be a step toward tailoring mental health therapies to the specific brain functioning of individual patients.

“These findings help reinforce a strategy whereby individuals may be able to improve their emotional functioning  — their mood, their anxiety, their experience of depression — not only by directly addressing those phenomena, but also by indirectly improving their general cognitive functioning,” said Dr. Ahmad Hariri, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

Previous research from this team shows that people whose brains exhibit a high response to threat and a low response to reward are at greater risk for developing symptoms of anxiety and depression over time.

In the current study, Hariri and Matthew Scult, a clinical psychology graduate student in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, set out to determine whether higher activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex could help shield these at-risk individuals from developing a mental health disorder.

“We wanted to address an area of understanding mental illness that has been neglected, and that is the flip side of risk,” Hariri said. “We are looking for variables that actually confer resiliency and protect individuals from developing problems.”

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is considered the brain’s “executive control” center, allowing us to focus our attention and plan complex actions. This region is also involved in emotion regulation. In fact, well-established types of psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), engage this area of the brain by equipping patients with strategies to reframe or re-evaluate their emotions.

For the study, the researchers looked at the data of 120 undergraduate students who were enrolled in the Duke Neurogenetics Study. Each participant completed a series of mental health questionnaires and underwent functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) while engaging in tasks meant to activate specific regions of the brain.

Each participant answered simple memory-based math problems to stimulate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. They also viewed angry or scared faces to activate a region of the brain called the amygdala, and played a reward-based guessing game to stimulate activity in the brain’s ventral striatum.

The researchers were particularly interested in at-risk individuals who showed a combination of high threat-related activity in the amygdala and low reward-related activity in the ventral striatum.

By comparing participants’ mental health assessments at the time of the brain scans as well as in a follow-up approximately seven months later, the researchers found that these at-risk individuals were less likely to develop anxiety if they also had high activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

“We found that if you have a higher functioning dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the imbalance in these deeper brain structures is not expressed as changes in mood or anxiety,” said Hariri.

According to the researchers, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is particularly skilled at adapting to new situations. Individuals whose brains exhibit the at-risk signatures may be more likely to benefit from therapies that boost the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal activity, including CBT, working memory training or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

However, the researchers warn that it remains unclear whether brain-training exercises improve the overall functioning of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or only hone its ability to complete the specific task being trained. More studies involving diverse populations are needed to confirm these findings.

“We are hoping to help improve current mental health treatments by first predicting who is most at-risk so that we can intervene earlier, and second, by using these types of approaches to determine who might benefit from a given therapy,” said Scult.

Source: Duke University