Boosting brain's 'executive center' may prevent anxiety

New research, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, finds that improving activity in the brain's "executive control" center may protect against anxiety and depression.

Training a certain part of your brain to perform better may protect you against anxiety, especially if you're at risk. This is the main takeaway of a recent study carried out by researchers at Duke University in Durham, NC.

The scientists set out to investigate potential strategies for helping people with anxiety better cope with their symptoms. They were prompted to do so by previous discoveries they had made.

In his previous research, Ahmad Hariri — a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke and a co-lead author on the current study — studied the brains of people at risk of depression and anxiety.

He, along with his colleagues, found that at-risk individuals exhibit an intense brain response to threat and a low one to reward.

So, in the new research, Prof. Hariri, together with Matthew Scult — a psychology and neuroscience graduate student — decided to turn to another brain area: the so-called dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).

The DLPFC is associated with executive brain functions, such as selective attention and working memory. Importantly, the DLPFC also helps us gain cognitive control over our emotions, and consequently, has been involved in a range of psychotherapy practice, such as CBT.

Speaking about the motivation for the present research, Prof. Hariri says, "We wanted to address an area of understanding mental illness that has been neglected, and that is the flip side of risk."

"We are looking for variables that actually confer resiliency and protect individuals from developing problems," he adds.

Studying anxiety and different brain areas

As part of the study, Scult, Prof. Hariri, and colleagues asked 120 students to fill in mental health questionnaires and take part in a range of cognitive tasks.

To engage their DLPFC, participants were asked to solve math problems. To have their amygdala activated — the brain's "fear hub" — they were asked to look at a range of emotive faces.

Finally, the participants played a game that triggered responses in the ventral striatum — a brain area associated with reward responses.

The researchers focused on at-risk individuals who displayed a low reward response in the ventral striatum and a high threat response in the amygdala.

To see the impact of their intervention, the researchers scanned the participants' brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); scientists also compared the participants' answers in the mental health questionnaires when the brain scans were taken, as well as the answers they gave after 7 months, on average.

Boosting DLPFC offers anti-anxiety resilience

The study revealed that at-risk people were less prone to developing anxiety symptoms if their DLPFC was stimulated.

Speaking about the results in relation to the neurological signatures of anxiety, Prof. Hariri says, "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."

The researchers also emphasize how adaptable the DLPFC is, so they suggest that brain training strategies may be particularly effective if they focus on this area. However, which brain training exercises are actually effective at improving the DLPFC remains to be established.

"These findings help reinforce a strategy whereby individuals may be able to improve their emotional functioning — their mood, their anxiety, their experience of depression — not only by directly addressing those phenomena, but also by indirectly improving their general cognitive functioning," says Prof. Hariri.

"We are hoping to help improve current mental health treatments by first predicting who is most at-risk so that we can intervene earlier, and second, by using these types of approaches to determine who might benefit from a given therapy."

Matthew Scult

The authors note that more diverse population samples should be studied to replicate their findings.