Researchers have found that boosting activity in the brain’s areas related to thinking and problem-solving may also buffer against worsening anxiety. Using non-invasive brain imaging, the researchers found that people at risk of anxiety were less likely to develop the disorder if they had higher activity in a brain region responsible for complex mental operations.
“These findings help reinforce a strategy whereby individuals may be able to improve their emotional functioning — their mood, anxiety, experience of depression — not only by directly addressing those phenomena, but also by indirectly improving their general cognitive functioning,” said Ahmad Hariri, Professor at the Duke University in North Carolina, US.
For the study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, researchers investigated undergraduate students whether higher activity in a brain region called dorsolateral prefrontal cortex could help shield these at-risk individuals from future mental illness.
Each participant completed a series of mental health questionnaires and underwent a type of non-invasive brain scan called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) while engaged in tasks meant to activate specific regions of the brain.
The researchers asked each participant to answer simple memory-based maths problems to stimulate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Participants also viewed angry or scared faces to activate a region of the brain called the amygdala and played a reward-based guessing game to stimulate activity in the brain’s ventral striatum.
By comparing participants’ mental health assessments at the time of the brain scans, and in a follow-up on an average seven months later, the researcher found that these at-risk individuals were less likely to develop anxiety if they also had high activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
“We found that if you have a more functioning dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the imbalance in these deeper brain structures is not expressed as changes in mood or anxiety,” Hariri noted.