A new study has shed some light on how negative emotions impact neurodegeneration and their role in conditions including dementia.

Research by scientists from the University of Geneva suggests that improving management of emotions, through methods like meditation, could help to reduce aging of the brain.

The team set out to investigate what happens to the brain after it is exposed to an emotional stimulus – how the brain switches from one emotion to another, how it returns to its initial state and what happens to the brain as a result of the mismanagement of emotions.

Previous research has indicated that there are benefits to mental health when someone has the ability to change emotions quickly, while those who stay in the same emotional state for long periods of time have a greater risk of developing depression.

This latest study saw researchers analyse the activation of the brains when exposed to the suffering of others, focussing on younger and older adults.

Co-director of the research, Professor Patrik Vuilleumier, from the Department of Basic Neurosciences at the Faculty of Medicine and at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences at the University of Geneva, explained: “Our aim was to determine what cerebral trace remains after the viewing of emotional scenes, in order to evaluate the brain’s reaction, and, above all, its recovery mechanisms. We focused on the older adults, in order to identify possible differences between normal and pathological ageing.”

The study saw participants watch television footage of people living through a natural disaster or another distressing situation, with MRI used to analyse the volunteers’ brain activity.

One group was made up of people aged over 65 while another comprised people aged around 25. Another group of older adults also took part in the same experiment.

First author Sebastian Baez Lugo said: “Older people generally show a different pattern of brain activity and connectivity from younger people. This is particularly noticeable in the level of activation of the default mode network, a brain network that is highly activated in resting state. Its activity is frequently disrupted by depression or anxiety, suggesting that it is involved in the regulation of emotions.

“In the older adults, part of this network, the posterior cingulate cortex, which processes autobiographical memory, shows an increase in its connections with the amygdala, which processes important emotional stimuli. These connections are stronger in subjects with high anxiety scores, with rumination, or with negative thoughts.”

Older people are found to focus more on positive aspects and are more likely to regulate their emotions compared to younger people. Changes in the connection between two parts of the brain show a departure from normal aging processes, heightened in those who display more negative and anxious emotions.

Sebastian Baez Lugo said: “Is it poor emotional regulation and anxiety that increases the risk of dementia or the other way around? We still don’t know. Our hypothesis is that more anxious people would have no or less capacity for emotional distancing. The mechanism of emotional inertia in the context of ageing would then be explained by the fact that the brain of these people remains ‘frozen’ in a negative state by relating the suffering of others to their own emotional memories.”

The study has been published in the journal Nature Aging.

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