Emotion Regulation: Mechanisms, Neural Networks & Zombies

03/13/2018: Guess the publication (6th edition)


Solution: For this weeks’ Guess The Publication we did not only present a single cartoon, but a whole sci-art poster representing the concept, psychological mechanisms and neural basis of emotion regulation as presented in the synthetic review article by Kevin Ochsner, Jennifer Silvers and Jason Buhle (2012). Important to note is, that this model was first proposed in 2002, elaborated on in 2005, further described as depicted here in 2012 and recently extended in a 2017 publication by Laura Braunstein, James Gross and Kevin Ochsner. The latest key features include a further distinction separating the nature of the emotion regulation goal (from implicit to explicit) and the nature of the emotion change process (from automatic to control). Such ongoing adaptations to the model of the cognitive control of emotions are made to reflect the increasing and changing knowledge gained through animal and human research studies.

But what is emotion regulation exactly? Emotion regulation describes the process of changing or controlling an emotion. This can either be an up- or down-regulation of the magnitude or duration of a feeling experienced. In order to understand emotion regulatory processes, it is helpful to first revisit steps included in the generation of an emotional response. In short, these include: a stimulus that is present in a certain context, attention directed at this stimulus, assigning a meaning to the stimulus and translating the stimulus into a bodily or mental representation. And so an emotional response is generated. However, not in all cases is it appropriate to immediately react on the first initial feeling generated. As for example, we may not have considered all the information available. And sometimes the feelings are warranted, but it is nevertheless socially inappropriate to immediately act on them. How well we are able to regulate our own emotions has been linked to personal well-being and the well-being of our surroundings. An inability to apply appropriate emotion regulation strategies has further been linked to psychiatric conditions, including conduct disorder, anxiety disorders or depression.

From a neuroimaging perspective, this review suggests that there is a network of brain areas activated by an emotional stimulus (including the amygdala, insula and ventral striatum), a network of brain regions performing the emotion regulation per se (including dorsomedial-, dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, dorso-anterior cingulate cortex, posterior PFC and inferior parietal brain regions) and additional brain regions with a more intermediary role (including prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex, superior/middle temporal gyrus and the temporoparietal junction). Additionally, as mediating pathways the dorsomedial or ventrolateral prefrontal regions are suggested to modulate amygdala reactivity through the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

The here reviewed research and the proposed model of the cognitive control of emotions may lay the foundation for studies assessing all dimensions of emotion regulation behaviours in healthy or clinical populations. Disorder-specific patterns of emotion regulation abnormalities as observed in behavioural observations or neuronal assessments may hold the promise to inform about the relevant pathophysiology of mental disorders. Furthermore, they may provide indicators on treatment choice and/or explain treatment success. A current exemplary large-scale study focusing on emotion processing and regulation in psychiatric childhood disorders is FemNAT-CD, a multicentre neuroimaging study aiming to assess the genetic, behavioural and neurobiological markers of female conduct disorder.

Summary & Take Home Message: The here “cartoonized” review paper synthesizes functional imaging research on emotion regulation and proposes a basic model of the psychological mechanisms and neural systems involved. This evolving model of the cognitive control of emotions at all levels may lay the foundation for studies targeting the investigation not only in healthy, but also clinical populations.

Original Publication: Ochsner, K. N., Silvers, J. A., & Buhle, J. T. (2012). Functional imaging studies of emotion regulation: a synthetic review and evolving model of the cognitive control of emotion. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1251(1).

Fun Fact: At bornascientist.com, we do not only like Zombies – we are also Star Wars fans. For a lay language and fun description of emotion processing, regulation and the brain, read our publication in Frontiers for Young Minds called “Emotions and the brain or how to master the force”.

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