Managing emotions effectively can have a positive impact on overall well-being and can potentially prevent pathological aging. Chronic stress and negative emotions have been linked to a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, mental health issues, and cognitive decline. On the other hand, positive emotions and stress management techniques have been shown to have beneficial effects on physical and mental health, including reducing inflammation and improving cognitive function. Therefore, developing emotional regulation skills, such as mindfulness and stress management, could potentially prevent pathological aging by reducing the negative impact of chronic stress on the body and brain.
Negative emotions, anxiety, and depression are thought to contribute to the development of neurodegenerative diseases and dementia. But what effect do they have on the brain, and can their negative effects be mitigated? When confronted with the psychological suffering of others, neuroscientists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) observed brain activation in young and old adults.
The neuronal connections of older adults exhibit significant emotional inertia: negative emotions modify them excessively and over time, particularly in the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala, two brain regions heavily involved in emotion management and autobiographical memory. These findings, which will be published in Nature Aging, suggest that better managing these emotions, such as through meditation, could help limit neurodegeneration.
Neuroscientists have been studying how the brain reacts to emotions for the past 20 years. “We are beginning to understand what happens at the moment of perception of an emotional stimulus,” says Dr Olga Klimecki, the study’s last author and a researcher at the UNIGE’s Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences and the Deutsches Zentrum für Neurodegenerative Erkrankungen. “What happens next, however, is a mystery. How does the brain transition from one emotion to the next? How does it get back to its original state? Is emotional variability affected by age? What are the consequences of emotional mismanagement on the brain?”
Our goal was to determine what cerebral trace remained after viewing emotional scenes in order to evaluate the brain’s reaction and, more importantly, its recovery mechanisms. We focused on older adults in order to identify possible differences between normal and pathological aging.Patrik Vuilleumier
Previous psychological research has shown that the ability to change emotions quickly is beneficial to mental health. People who are unable to regulate their emotions and who remain in the same emotional state for an extended period of time are at a higher risk of depression.
“Our goal was to determine what cerebral trace remained after viewing emotional scenes in order to evaluate the brain’s reaction and, more importantly, its recovery mechanisms. We focused on older adults in order to identify possible differences between normal and pathological aging,” says Patrik Vuilleumier, co-director of this study and professor in the Department of Basic Neurosciences at the Faculty of Medicine and at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences at the UNIGE.
Not all brains are created equal
The scientists showed volunteers short television clips showing people in a state of emotional suffering – during a natural disaster or distress situation for example – as well as videos with neutral emotional content, in order to observe their brain activity using functional MRI. First, the team compared a group of 27 people over 65 years of age with a group of 29 people aged around 25 years. The same experiment was then repeated with 127 older adults.
“Older people generally show a different pattern of brain activity and connectivity than younger people,” says Sebastian Baez Lugo, a researcher in Patrik Vuilleumier’s laboratory and the study’s first author. “This is especially noticeable in the level of activation of the default mode network, a brain network that is highly activated in the resting state. Its activity is frequently disrupted by depression or anxiety, implying that it is involved in emotion regulation. Part of this network, the posterior cingulate cortex, which processes autobiographical memory, shows an increase in connections with the amygdala, which processes important emotional stimuli, in older adults. These connections are stronger in subjects who have high anxiety levels, rumination, or negative thoughts.”
Empathy and ageing
However, older people have better emotional regulation than younger people and can focus on positive details even during a negative event. Changes in connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala, on the other hand, may indicate a deviation from the normal aging process, which is exacerbated in people who exhibit more anxiety, rumination, and negative emotions. Because the posterior cingulate cortex is one of the regions most affected by dementia, the presence of these symptoms may increase the risk of neurodegenerative disease.
”Is it poor emotional regulation and anxiety that increases the risk of dementia or the other way around? We still don’t know,” says Sebastian Baez Lugo. ”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.”
Could meditation be a solution?
Is it possible to prevent dementia by targeting the mechanism of emotional inertia? The research team is currently conducting an 18-month interventional study to assess the effects of foreign language learning on the one hand and meditation practice on the other. “In order to refine our findings, we will also compare the effects of two types of meditation: mindfulness, which consists of anchoring oneself in the present in order to concentrate on one’s own feelings, and what is known as ‘compassionate’ meditation, which aims to actively increase positive emotions toward others,” the authors add.
This study is part of the MEDIT-AGEING study, a large European study aimed at evaluating the impact of non-pharmacological interventions for better aging.