Abstract: Emotional regulation was associated with the activity of theta waves in the frontal cortex of the brain.
Source: University of Montreal
Unaware of this, we all rely on emotional regulation many times a day. It is a process by which we mitigate the effect of disturbing stimuli in order to stay focused, improve our well-being, and respond to demands from our environment.
Emotional regulation plays a key role in many mental illnesses and their treatment, including anxiety, mood disorders, and borderline personality disorder.
Now, Inès Zouaoui, a master’s student in psychology under the supervision of Professor Marc Lavoie at the Research Center of the Institute of Mental Health in Montreal, has shown that emotional regulation is linked to the action of theta waves in a specific part of the brain, the frontal cortex. Zouaoui will start his doctorate. in biomedical science, an option in psychiatry, at UdeM this fall.
Brain wave specific for emotional regulation
Building on the results of a 2013 study that showed that theta waves are generated during emotional regulation, a Montreal research team gave 24 subjects a cognitive reassessment exercise.
“We used cognitive reassessment, which basically involves reinterpreting the meaning of the situation, to conduct an experimental study of emotional regulation,” Zouaoui explained. “Our goal was to decipher the electrocortical mechanisms that accompany this complex process.”
They attached electrodes to the scalps of 10 men and 14 women to record electrical activity in their brains in response to disturbing images, such as a man armed with a knife or a threatening dog.
While their brain activity was continuously measured and recorded by electroencephalography, subjects were instructed to either amplify, reduce, or maintain their feelings of repulsion, depending on which group they were assigned to. This step also included cognitive reassessment. After a few seconds the image disappeared and the phase of emotional regulation ended.
“We conducted more detailed encephalogram analyzes than what was done in the previous study to measure the frequencies of brain waves generated during cognitive reassessment and found only theta waves, which oscillate between 4 and 8 Hz,” Zouaoui reported.
“Thus, theta waves can be considered a marker of emotional regulation.
“What’s new in our study is that by comparing the phases of emotional induction and emotional regulation, we were able to show that theta waves are specific to the phase of regulation,” Zouaoui said.
“We also looked for alpha waves, which range from 8 to 13 Hz, to see if theta waves are specific for emotional regulation and found that alpha waves are not sensitive to either emotional induction or emotional regulation.”
The use of electrodes also allowed the research team to pinpoint the precise region of the brain responsible for generating theta waves: the frontal regions involved in cognitive control.
New treatment options
Zouaoui’s goal was not just to build on a previous study and add to the scientific literature; she hopes her experiment can one day be used to support clinical practice.
“Because theta waves can be a marker of successful emotional regulation, it could lead to new treatment options for people whose emotional regulation is disrupted, as is the case with severe anxiety and schizophrenia, for example.”
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