|After the training, participants were
less distracted by scary pictures
A simple computer training task, which involves ignoring irrelevant information, can change the brain’s wiring to make it less responsive to threatening pictures. That’s according to a new study published in Neuroimage. The authors say they are the first to demonstrate that neutral (as in, non emotional) attention training can change the brain’s emotional reactivity.
Twenty-six healthy participants completed the “executive control” training, which required them to identify the direction of a central arrow on a computer screen as fast as possible, while ignoring the direction of two other arrows adjacent either side of it (e.g., →→←→→). Half the participants completed a more intense version of the training in which 80 per cent of the trials were incongruent, with the distracting arrows facing the opposite way the target arrow. The other participants completed an easier version of the training in which only 20 per cent of the trials were incongruent. The participants completed this training three times a day (for about 15 minutes each session) for six days.
The test of the participants’ emotional reactivity involved them indicating the colour of squares flashed on a screen, with each square preceded either by a neutral picture or a scary picture, such as a vicious snarling dog. Typically, people’s colour judgments are slowed down after a scary picture.
To see how the training affected the brain, the researchers, led by Noga Cohen at Ben-Gurion University, first scanned the participants brains by fMRI during the emotional task, then they conducted a resting-state scan which reveals communication patterns between brain areas. Next, the participants did their six days’ of training. Finally, the participants returned for another brain scan while they did the emotional task again, and they undertook another resting-state scan.
The participants who completed the more intense version of the training (but not the other participants) showed reduced activation in their amygdala – a brain region involved in emotions, including anxiety and fear – during the second emotional task, as compared with at the study start. This reduction in amygdala reactivity also correlated with their performance on the emotional task. That is, the more their amygdala was calmed, the less their responses were slowed by scary pictures. There was also some evidence that, after the training, the high-intensity training group showed increased connectivity between their right amygdala and frontal cortex.
This is very preliminary evidence that exercises that improve people’s basic attentional skills (specifically their ability to ignore irrelevant information) can alter brain networks involved in emotional processing, with the consequence that the person becomes less reactive to frightening imagery. The sample size was very small, the participants were all healthy with no mental health problems, and we know nothing of the long-term effects of the training. Acknowledging these limitations, the researchers said their findings suggest non-emotional executive control training “can suppress emotional reactions, and thus might serve as a short-term and easy-to-implement treatment for individuals suffering from disorders characterised by emotion dysregulation.”
Cohen N, Margulies DS, Ashkenazi S, Schaefer A, Taubert M, Henik A, Villringer A, & Okon-Singer H (2015). Using Executive Control Training to Suppress Amygdala Reactivity to Aversive Information. NeuroImage PMID: 26520770
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