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Thinking happy thoughts - young people control 'emotional brain' using MRI technique

Young people are able to regulate activity within their ‘emotional brain’ when prompted to ‘think happy thoughts’, using real-time MRI feedback of brain activity, according to a new study by researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London and Oxford University. The findings, published today in Neuroimage, could have important implications for the development of new interventions for psychiatric conditions in young people such as anxiety and depression.

Neurofeedback allows scientists to monitor levels of brain activity in real-time, which is then fed back to the patient on a display screen. Based on this information, patients are able to see and alter activity in specific parts of the brain by, for example, thinking of something that makes them happy.

This technique has been successfully used to teach adults and patients with various psychiatric conditions, including depression, to regulate brain responses in key regions of the brain associated with emotional processing. However, this new research is the first to show the effectiveness of this technique for children and adolescents. 

The researchers from King’s set out to investigate whether a group of 17 young people, aged 7-16, could be taught to regulate their brain responses when watching activity in a part of the brain associated with emotional processing - the bilateral insula. 

They watched the real-time amplitude of their brain signals via an image of a thermometer on a display screen, whose dial changed according to levels of activity. The participants were either asked to ‘think happy thoughts’, in order to activate the bilateral insula, or to ‘relax, like turning off a car engine’, to keep activity low. 

They found that children and adolescents across a wide age-range were not only able to reliably regulate their brain responses in the insula, but this also spread across a network of regions – all involved in regulating emotions.

Dr Jennifer Lau from the IoPPN at King’s College London, said: ‘Childhood and adolescence is an extremely important time for young people’s emotional development. Therefore, the ability to shape brain networks associated with the regulation of emotions could be crucial for preventing future mental health problems, which are known to arise during this vital period when the brain’s emotional capacity is still developing.

‘This technique could be used to teach patients more effective psychological strategies for regulating intense emotions and behaviour. With sufficient practice, it’s possible that these strategies would become increasingly strengthened with the potential to shape emotional behaviour in a more long-term way.’

Dr Kathrin Cohen Kadosh from the University of Oxford, said: ‘The next step is to investigate whether children and young people with more extreme levels of mood and anxiety problems will be able to engage with these learning techniques in the same way. Difficulties in regulating emotions are a key feature of these teenage psychiatric conditions, so being able to learn new strategies to target these difficulties is an important goal for therapy.’

This research was funded by the European Commission.

Notes to editors

Paper reference: Cohen Kadosh, K et al (2015) 'Using real-time fMRI to influence effective connectivity in the developing emotion regulation network' Neuroimage doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.09.070

For further media information please contact Jack Stonebridge, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London

For further information about King’s visit our ‘King’s in Brief’ page.