Complex Thinking, Problem Solving May Protect Against Anxiety

brain-Jonathan Lee, Duke University.jpg

High activity in the brain region responsible for complex thinking and problem-solving may prevent at-risk individuals from developing anxiety, according to Duke University research.

The findings suggest people might indirectly improve their emotional state (e.g., mood, anxiety) by enhancing their general cognitive functioning.

Earlier Duke studies revealed people whose brains demonstrate a high response to threat, and low response to reward are at greater risk for developing anxiety and depression symptoms. The current study looked at whether more activity in the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex could protect at-risk people from mood disorder onset.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is an “executive control” center that helps us plan complex actions, focus our attention, and regulate our emotions.

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

Data for the study came from 120 undergraduates in the Duke Neurogenetics Study. Participants filled out mental health questionnaires, and underwent brain scans while engaged in brain-stimulating tasks: memory-based math problems stimulated the participants’ dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, pictures of scared and angry faces activated their amygdalas, and a reward-based game triggered their brain’s ventral striatum.

The study determined that at-risk individuals - those with high threat activity in the amygdala, and low reward activity in the ventral striatum - were less likely to develop anxiety if they also showed high dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activity.

“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,” Hariri said.

However, it’s unknown whether brain training exercises will enhance overall dorsolateral prefrontal cortex function, or simply help people complete targeted tasks. More research is needed.

Source: Duke Today
Photo credit: Jonathan Lee, Duke University

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